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Online Workshop: Working effectively with others as a virtual team


This is the report from the TrainingZONE online workshop held on 20 June 2000 on the topic of Working effectively with others as a virtual team.

David James (DJ) Welcome to this discussion to explore the issues related to virtual and remote teamworking. Key purposes being to identify common challenges faced by dispersed teams and to share some successful practices and solutions used by participants in this discussion.

Paul North (PN) Here are some ground rules: David James will lead the discussion Paul North will be facilitating, including welcoming new participants.

Paul North (PN) Please use initials when referring to other participants, eg David James is DJ.

David James (DJ) For the purposes of this discussion let us define a virtual team as a dispersed team which exists in order to carry out a specific task, project or function and which is not co-located in space and/or time.

David James (DJ) To get the discussion going, what challenges do you consider that non co-located teams face?

Robert Benson The obvious one is communication.

Jacqui Rolfe Have you started?

David James (DJ) RB you mentioned communication, what particularly do you think is an issue.

Stephanie Phillips Yes, communication definitely. It's difficult to know when to phone or e-mail, and how to judge this.

Robert Benson Keeping good lines of communication between remote staff is an unforgiving task.

David James (DJ) I think that e mail comes after speaking in terms of effectiveness.

Dee Logan Hi - I've just joined you, Dee Logan.

Jon Seaton Communication is the key issue, such as accessibility to the same data, and using common software.

Stephanie Phillips You could remedy it by saying you'll contact eachother at a specific time, but this in itself might cause problems.

David James (DJ) I think it's more tools than software, maybe?

Stephanie Phillips Paul, David - any thoughts on this 'can of worms'?

David James (DJ) We're discussing the issues related to communication right now.

Jon Seaton There is also a question of keeping an element of 'inclusiveness', you know, maintaining a 'team' spirit.

Emma Is it not a large part of the managers role to ensure this inclusiveness and how would they approach this?

Paul North (PN) That's interesting. Let's all talk about how you can foster inclusiveness in the virtual situation.

Emma I think it's quite important that managers have more trust in their employees in this situation and lead rather than manage.

Stephanie Phillips We use a workshop like this one once a week to discuss things.

Dee Logan Think it depends on what the 'team' mission is - if 'sales' then ideas like Newsletters of who's doing what bimonthly might help.

Robert Benson Good point Emma - remoteness can lead to feelings of insecurity, which in turn leads to overcompensation on the 'control freak' front.

Emma So really it's more awareness within the team of people's roles and how they are part of the bigger scene?

Stephanie Phillips A good induction is obviously important...

Jon Seaton The issue of manager or leader is interesting - in this context, I think the role is of communications facilitator and encourager.

David James (DJ) Clarity of deliverable becomes important here too.

Emma That's another question in itself. How is the company culture embedded in a virtual team?

Robert Benson And as you say Emma, leadership is vital. With a common goal, you can make decisions by yourself with the backing of your superiors.

wyn llewellyn Emma's point about leading rather than managing is important. Frequent supportive contact by email and phone may be helpful. But I guess that means getting better at listening and painting word pictures for both manager and managed.

David James (DJ) The impact on the values of an organisation can be huge.

Jon Seaton So what should be the key values in an organisation working in virtual teams?

Stephanie Phillips David - can you elaborate?

Rob Hudson I agree with the team focus and hence maybe the answer lies in understanding all the contributions to teamwork in the touchy-feely world and replicate/find substitutes in the virtual world.

wyn llewellyn And the values shift will change the work climate as long as managers change the way they operate to suit the new stated values.

David James (DJ) There's a lot about trust and letting people meet their objectives in line with the organisations needs.

Robert Benson In my experience, dealing remotely with people can exacerbate personality clashes - working on your own inevitably leads to a more 'developed' sense of the work you do, and hence greater individual value.

David James (DJ) There's a need for frequent and balanced feedback in an atmosphere of openness.

Emma Establishing relationships between colleagues must be a difficult task but maybe this could be done through inductions?

Robert Benson And disagreements over particular aspects of another person's work can cause more problems than if you are in the same office with someone.

wyn llewellyn There's something here about understanding the distinctive capability and contribution of other team members.

Paul North (PN) Robert, that's a very important point, given how difficult it is to convey emotion via email. It's easy to read the wrong thing into a message from someone you're in contention with.

Dee Logan Dee Logan - Robert makes good point, emails or lack of them, can increase personality clashes, endorsing views, often mistakenly.

Emma Is that because of the lack of relationship as a base?

David James (DJ)And emails are permanent - even after the emotion has gone.

Stephanie Phillips I think you have to have some human contact to establish a proper relationship - although people who meet through virtual 'lonely hearts' may disagree!

David James (DJ) Affiliation needs will be different for each person.

Stephanie Phillips David - can you explain what you mean by affiliation needs?

john nye Anyone there?

David James (DJ) Some people are very comfortable working on their own and others need to relate more closely to others.

Dee Logan Dee Logan - What experience is there in this group of successful communication to virtual workers i.e. making them feel valued?

Stephanie Phillips David - thanks.

Emma Has anyone experienced difficulties with embedding company culture?

Stephanie Phillips Another thing for induction to consider again?

David James (DJ) Our organisation has been virtual for 35 years and we have found that induction activities needs to happen regularly.

Emma Do you have a buddying system or something similar?

Stephanie Phillips Sounds like a good idea?

David James (DJ) Yes, we do. Informal and formal depending on the need.

Stephanie Phillips How does it work?

David James (DJ) We have clear objectives for a balanced scorecard of outcomes and then select the most appropriate person to buddy with.

Emma Do you hold face-to-face meetings at any time?

wyn llewellyn WL. Seems that managers of virtual organisations may need different personal and process skills? what do you all think?

Jon Seaton Is that based on work function or social compatibility DJ?

David James (DJ) Emma, yes we do, on about a quarterly basis for formal needs and other frequencies as appropriate.

Paul North (PN) Wyn, let's come back to that in 5 minutes.

David James (DJ) Jon, there is an element of compatibility, it's important to relate to the person.

emma Does that help to create relationships?

Dee Logan Dee Logan - we hold face to face meetings monthly, but misses point that people get lonely and demotivated.

Stephanie Phillips David - but that is a problem in any organisations - can it be dealt with in the same way as in a 'non-virtual' organisation?

emma Is not a big part of motivation though keeping the employee aware of the achievements they've had and how they fit in with the bigger picture?

Stephanie Phillips Maybe more technology is the answer - e.g. videoconferencing?

emma I think technology is an aid but it can desensitise people.

David James (DJ) Stephanie, that's an interesting point and does allow for some visual feedback.

Dee Logan Dee Logan - Emma, absolutely, motivation is about many things, but regular feedback on achievement of you and others really helps.

emma What do you think about barriers such as language and cultural when dealing in an international context?

David James (DJ) I think the points about feedback are crucial, if someone knows what they are good at and achieving they will be more confident.

david griffiths Has your experience given you contact with virtual team managers who spend all their time travelling?

Celia Bonner It has been suggested that some of the worst problems come where teams are partly virtual - i.e. where some of the team work at base and others not - do any of you have comments on that?

Dee Logan Dee Logan - Emma, having an Intranet site might help, but needs people to access it regularly.

Stephanie Phillips Celia - we have that situation, I think it probably is more of a problem.

David James (DJ) David, it is a challenge to keep in touch, especially when time zones are involved and communication becomes a fulltime job.

Jon Seaton Keeping in mind that isolation, loneliness, separation happen within some virtual teams, I would want to say that there are also positive aspects for some individuals in working remotely.

David James (DJ) What do consider these to be Jon?

Stephanie Phillips Can we go back to Wyn's point about the skills needed by virtual managers?

emma Does anyone know of any models to follow when building the virtual team?

Dee Logan Dee Logan - someone co-ordinating feedback, round some common format, on behalf of group and distributing works well.

Celia Bonner JS - Please elaborate - it would be good to hear the positive side.

Paul North (PN) Yes please, it was: Seems that managers of virtual organisations may need different personal and process skills? what do you all think?

Jon Seaton I'm thinking of the ability to better concentrate on the task in hand, work without interruption, achieve an improved work-life balance. The list could be longer!

Dee Logan Dee Logan - DJ, some positive points are suiting hours to business need, taking time out to handle personal matters, feeling your own boss.

david griffiths DJ. Your point about challenge is appreciated. Managers in say, clinical trials in pharmaceuticals, find that they have to reinforce directives, then empower, but to control, must travel physically, using internet as routine administrator.

emma There needs to be an awareness from the manager that problems within a team can be emphasised within the virtual team.

Dee Logan Dee Logan - What about other skills of the virtual manager please.

David James (DJ) Summing up some of the recent points leadership is very important to get right so that feedback is consistent and motivation is build around clear objectives and support.

Stephanie Phillips Dee - I would say time management and attention to detail for handling virtual and 'real' relationships.

Celia Bonner PN - Following from Emma's comment it seem that most of the virtual teams' problems are those of static teams - clarity of purpose, communication, motivation etc. but exacerbated by time and distance - all to be set against the very positive advantages some of you have mentioned.

wyn llewellyn Wyn. One of the timewasting issues I see frequently is senior managers having to 'progress chase' even in a non-virtual environment. So what skills do they need to deploy to reduce that waste? particularly pertinent in the virtual team, I think.

Stephanie Phillips Does anyone have any top tips for 'best practice'?

Paul North (PN) Celia, agreed, virtual-ness of a team is a continuum and is not always constant for a given team. the skills and problems are the same at each end of the continuum, although the focus will be very different.

Dee Logan Dee Logan - 'Progress chase' can occur when receivers are not motivated to action request, either by tone of note, or difficulty due to time, or understanding the purpose.

emma Does anyone know of any good web sites/ companies etc. where I can find out more about virtual teams?

David James (DJ) WL this may be because responsibility doesn't go far enough down the line and senior managers are expected to account in detail for things that they shouldn't.

Paul North (PN) I do... but I'm not supposed to advertise here!!

Celia Bonner wl - Does it mean you need more clearly defined planning/progress charts that for a face-to-face team?

David James (DJ) Celia-yes I think it does.

Paul North (PN) Yes, Celia, and very clear descriptions of aims and success criteria at the beginning.

Jon Seaton I'm new to our system Wyn, but workloads need to be clearly agreed between worker and manager without unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved.

Stephanie Phillips (Emma - maybe Paul can give you his company details later? You can see his e-mail address by clicking on his name).

David James (DJ) And purpose is extremely important, not just for the individual but also for the team, so the individual knows how their bit contributes to the whole.

Dee Logan Dee Logan - if team have targets, should everyone's achievement to date be shared, or is that more demotivating?

David James (DJ) DL I think that it is dependent on the situation and can work both ways.

Stephanie Phillips I think you need to share them - it'll help to bring people together.

wyn llewellyn WL. what seems to help is if the Team had a target, so all the members can share responsibility for the progress and what needs to be done to achieve it.

David James (DJ) I agree.

Celia Bonner PN (and others) I am going to be honest here and admit my interest (and that of Emma, who works with me). We are doing research into virtual teams for a forthcoming training pack and are looking for examples of good practice to include as a help for others. If that breaches the terms of this meeting, I'm sorry - if not, then get in touch with us.

David James (DJ) Not a problem with me, Celia and Emma.

Stephanie Phillips Celia - that's fine, it's all to do with sharing ideas!

wyn llewellyn WL And I am about to publish a book on High performance.

Jon Seaton Dee, that's maybe where company culture comes in. Even in missing targets there should be positive aspects to be drawn from activities. That's where emphasis should lay, same as a non-virtual team.

Celia Bonner Bye all - I have to go to another (face-to-face) meeting - I look forward to hearing more......

wyn llewellyn WL. Whoops I hit return before the end of the sentence......climate, so I am passionately interested in what makes teams really FIZZ.

Stephanie Phillips David - I see Paul has gone and we are nearly out of time! Are there any last issues you would like to raise?

Dee Logan Dee Logan - how about sharing activities and resulting issues, help required from others etc?

David James (DJ) In order to become more effective at hosting discussions such as this does anyone have any feedback comments? What have you particularly liked? What proposals for improvements do you have?

Dee Logan Dee Logan - is there another session on virtual teams to come?

David James (DJ) There could well be.

Stephanie Phillips We can do another one if there is demand and if David and Paul are happy to do it!

emma Does anyone mind if I contact them at a later date via e-mail?

David James (DJ) We'd welcome it.

Stephanie Phillips We have had a good attendance at this one - thanks all for contributing.

wyn llewellyn WL. Feedback. The process seems to work pretty well considering limitations. well done.

David James (DJ) Rose, do you have any comments?

Dee Logan Dee Logan - don't mind. Would like clear questions for discussion (in advance say) so can add comment.

David James (DJ) Thanks Dee.

Jon Seaton I need to go too! Thank you guys and gals - it was a good conference! (I'm more than happy for people to contact me Emma!)

Stephanie Phillips Dee - I think we could develop it further going on from this discussion.

Dee Logan Dee Logan - so are you able to email people who were in this session?

Stephanie Phillips Dee - you can see their e-mail addresses by clicking on their names on the right-hand column.

emma Thank you. I agree with Dee that it might be better to have an agenda beforehand.

wyn llewellyn Wyn. Nice 'talking ' to you all. Lets talk again. Bye! Wyn.

Robert Benson Bye.

emma I'm quite happy for people to e-mail me or pass on my details to people who might be interested in discussing this further.

Stephanie Phillips David - are you happy to wind things up now?

Dee Logan Dee Logan-as a virtual group, could Stephanie or David email possible questions to discuss in advance of next, with a date?

Dee Logan Dee Logan - thanks, interesting forum.

David James (DJ) Yes to Stephanie and to Dee.

Stephanie Phillips Dee - are you on the workshop alert mailing list? You'll get the details automatically if so.

Dee Logan Dee Logan - not sure, as just joined, but I get Training Zone emails, so assume yes?

Stephanie Phillips Thanks all. David - we can chat by mail later to discuss another date - thanks. Dee - you need to double-check your profile for workshop alerts.

emma Bye.

David James (DJ) Bye until next time.


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