From a distance

25 Mar 2004 By Carolyn Axtell, Jo Wheeler, Malcolm Patterson and Anna Leach

It’s hard enough for people to work as a team when they are based in the same building. But for a virtual team of IT developers at pharmaceuticals manufacturer Eli Lilly the challenges were far greater

The 15-strong team was split between the main site in Giessen in Germany and two smaller satellites: one in Berlin and the other in London. An added complication was that members of this mixed nationality team communicated with each other in English, which for many was a second language.

Small wonder, then, that despite the team’s shared professional background there were misunderstandings – especially when the software developers used email to convey complex information. Task co-ordination also became problematic as new members arrived. With role boundaries not always clearly defined and the added problem of distance, uncertainty arose about who was supposed to carry out activities such as updating the project database. Some tasks fell in the cracks because team members assumed someone else was dealing with them.

The team responded by clarifying and modifying individuals’ roles. Team-building events also helped cement working relations between colleagues based at the different locations. As one software developer said, the larger group at Giessen knew each other well, but communications between those working at different sites could initially be a bit impersonal. The team-building events, which were held about three times a year and included workshops and meetings, as well as fun activities such as go-karting, helped break the ice, and over time led to improved communications between team members. Telephone conversations between those who had met several times began to include the social chat that goes on between people who really are part of the same team.

External communications proved a harder nut to crack. The software developers needed to liaise with customers throughout Eli Lilly’s European sites. Without a shared professional language or opportunities to meet face-to-face, this was sometimes difficult.

A misunderstanding between a German developer and a Spanish customer illustrates the problem. When the customer took delivery of a product she had ordered, it turned out that there had been confusion about some of the system requirements and their cost. This was partly because of the difficulty of exchanging information about complex technical issues via telephone or email. It didn’t help that the customer did not share the developer’s technical know-how and that they had been communicating in English, which was neither party’s first language. The team rectified this by meeting the customer face-to-face, demonstrating the system and showing her what they meant. This experience prompted the team to ­clarify procedures and roles for dealing with customers.

The IT developers also ran into difficulties when dealing with the UK-based "server management" team, which was responsible for putting software onto the appropriate server. The development team could not understand why it took so long to put new software on the right server, while the server team did not understand what the developers’ priorities were. Their only communication was via a database, which meant that the development team did not know who was working on their request or what its status was – they just had to wait. One of the developers said the main problem was that they did not understand how any of the server team worked. He pointed out that if the team had been in the next room, it wouldn’t have been such a problem, as they could have just asked them how they were getting on with the work.

These problems were largely sorted out when two of the German software developers visited the server team in the UK. They learnt exactly what the team’s work involved and why things often took them so long to do. For its part, the server team gained an understanding of the impact of delays on certain projects and the ­developers’ priorities.

The two teams agreed that they would no longer rely solely on the database for communication but would use phone calls and emails to clarify priorities and highlight problems. The database itself was also upgraded so that the developers could access ­specific information, such as who was dealing with a ­particular request.

Although some of the lessons about managing virtual teams were learnt the hard way, the software development team and its managers were responsive to the problems they faced and dealt with them decisively.

Our interviews with employees in 32 organisations involved in virtual working suggests that the experience of the Eli Lilly developers is typical of the growing number of people who are now collaborating with remote colleagues.

Some of these colleagues may work from home or from multiple locations, while others may work in an office, but in a different country or region. The flexibility of these arrangements is often hailed as a good thing as it means that people are no longer constrained by where they live. Working with remote colleagues can bring diverse expertise and local knowledge together, and this can have a positive impact on innovation and team effectiveness. But the lack of a common context can also create tensions.

When people work in the same place, they can often get away with less than best practice, because there is a shared social system to paper over any cracks. Such colleagues usually understand each other because they come from the same or similar backgrounds. Face-to-face communication, whether in meetings or informal corridor chats enables them to check whether they have understood each other – and put right any misunderstandings before they cause too much damage.

By contrast, people who work remotely may not have this shared social system or opportunities for informal exchanges. So it is much harder for them to pick up on misunderstandings or other problems.

The organisations we studied agreed that the human and organisational aspects of virtual teamworking hampered effectiveness more than any inadequacies with the technology used to connect remote workers. In other words, if team roles and processes are not well-structured and if diversity and relationships are ignored, no amount of technology is going to help (see below).

This makes it doubly important to stick to good practice and adopt a structured and planned approach to virtual working. But what is good practice for virtual work? Our research suggests that it is largely the same as for co-located working, but more so! The virtual nature of the work exacerbates many of the problems that can occur in any working environment. Those who manage virtual teams therefore need to be aware of these issues and make sure they are prepared to deal with them.

How to manage virtual teams

Our research highlighted the following key issues in relation to co-ordinating virtual teams:

  • Shared goals, clear roles and regular performance feedback are particularly important in virtual environments and need to be spelt out explicitly.
  • Standards and processes (for example, for replying to communications) need to be agreed at the outset to ensure that everyone is working in a compatible way.
  • Appropriate communication media need to be used for particular purposes. Richer media such as telephone, video conferencing or face-to-face meetings can convey more verbal and non-verbal information than email. These richer media should be used for dealing with complex tasks, in situations where fast feedback is needed or in negotiations where emotions are an issue. Email is more suited to simple tasks where there is little danger of emotions escalating or misunderstandings occurring.

As for team relations, the research showed that:

  • Trust and cohesion can be difficult to develop in virtual teams because of the absence of social interaction and the lack of knowledge about colleagues’ situations and contexts. This can lead team members to blame each other if things go wrong rather than consider the situational constraints that may have lead to the problem. Team-building meetings and the exchange of social and contextual information can help here. Not all of this needs to be face-to-face, but face-to-face meetings are important at certain times, especially when the virtual team starts operating and when new members arrive.
  • Selection and training for virtual working need to include interpersonal skills such as working across boundaries and cultures as well as technical skills.

Further information

Carolyn Axtell and Jo Wheeler will be speaking on "Managing the remote worker" at HRD 2004 – the CIPD’s annual learning, training and development conference and exhibition (20-22 April, Olympia, London).

Carolyn Axtell and Malcolm Patterson are researchers at the University of Sheffield’s Institute of Work Psychology. Jo Wheeler and Anna Leach are occupational psychologists at Pearn Kandola.

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