Globalisation and offshoring are here to stay. For most managers, it means that at some point in their careers, they will have to manage a team spanning across multiple locations, time-zones and cultures. It can be an application team or a project team, but the challenge of every globally distributed team is the same: to coordinate multiple sub-teams, with their own slightly different objectives and cultures, and help them move efficiently toward a common goal.
I used to lead a delivery team spread across London, Brussels, New York and Mumbai. This gave me plenty of opportunities to ponder on how to make a virtual team work. But every team is different. Every team comes with its own mix of company culture, size and complexity, and there isn’t a one-size-fit-all solution to rely on. It takes a high level of self-awareness from the manager, in terms of management style and cultural bias. It also takes skill and confidence to experiment with new strategies and behaviours. Arguably, this applies to any team, but managers often get away with poor management in simple contexts whereas it is unlikely to play out nicely with a globally distributed virtual team.
The questions below are meant to help you think about some of the variables that make your team unique. I am not offering answers, but only pointers to start building your own strategies for a happier and more efficient virtual team.
1-What is the team ultimate purpose?
Highly functioning teams have a clear, shared sense of purpose, translated into clear goals. The purpose of a team must be crystal clear to every team member. It needs to be spelt out and every decision made should be an emanation of this purpose, as well as an obvious step towards the common goal.
So, as the manager, what is your team ultimate purpose? And if team members were asked the same question in every location, what do you think they would answer?
This question is crucial for any team, not only virtual ones. However, the complexity of virtual teams can make it difficult to share a common purpose. And communication challenges can prevent team members to understand and engage.
2-How are team decisions made?
Pondering on this may help you observe a number of interesting elements: your own management style, the company, the team and sub-teams cultures, the individual and team power struggles inside your team.
This question also points at one of the main differences between co-located and virtual teams in terms of management style. Facilitation, whatever management theory you refer to, is generally the most useful management style in co-located teams. But not for virtual teams. Reaching consensus requires a lot of interaction, formal and informal, between team members. And we are not talking about ‘content’ information that video conferencing is good at bridging. It requires constant and frequent interactions between members of the groups. As a manager, relying on the team to make its own decisions may be a great - and difficult - skill to acquire for a co-located team, but it is likely to cause a lot of frustration in a virtual team.
Of course engaging the whole team is still key. You need you drive the team towards the common goal, give them enough space to be fully engaged towards this goal, and yet beware of causing chaos by relying on mechanisms that cannot be bridged across locations. It is a fine balance, and if you recognise this in your team you can try experimenting with different management styles. It is not easy, but thinking about it strategically and not being afraid of trying out new behaviours will help you recognise what works or and what doesn’t.
3-Imagine you are a team member of the virtual location. What does it feel like to be a member of this team?
Start by picturing the physical environment of the “offshore” team. What is the everyday routine for team members there? How would it feel to be in their shoes, a member of the team, for a day?
Everything we say and do is an emanation of our own culture. The relationships we have with our colleagues, what we expect from our managers, everything is coloured by our cultural norms. Being aware of subtle dissonances is the first step in understanding how our own actions cause misunderstanding. The second step is to start modifying our own behaviours to try and hit the sweet spot where communication flows.
But even before looking at this, team members anywhere in the world have a lot in common: they are professionals from the same industry, they possibly belong to the same company, and most importantly they are all human beings. It is easy to obsess about cultural differences and to forget that we share most of our aspirations and frustrations with our fellow earthlings. So put yourself in their shoes and take an honest look at how it may feel to be part of the team.
4-What is the level of trust in your team?
Teams which perform with steady efficiency typically foster a high level of trust. Between team members, with the manager, with the organisation.
In virtual teams, trust can be difficult to establish and retain. Misunderstanding and communication problems are real challenges. It is difficult to build trust over the phone. Team members lack the trust indicators that naturally occur in everyday, face-to-face interactions.
Yet trust is critical. Despite our efforts towards rational thinking, we perceive reality in a distorted way that fit our preconceptions. If I fully trust someone, reality will confirm he or she is trustworthy. If I don’t trust someone, reality will give me reasons to confirm this as well. So more than with face-to-face interactions, beware of gut feelings alone and make sure you base your decisions on rational results: delivery, specific criteria, etc., that your brain will find a little bit harder to completely ignore. Be very aware of your assumptions and watch out for preconceptions, stereotypes and categorisations.
And remember that opinions are contagious. Especially as a manager, any judgment you hold towards other team members is likely to be picked up and amplified. So express your views wisely.
5-What is your biggest success as a team?
Success is a major motivator and the analysis of success gives you the map for repeating the experience. We tend to focus on failures and analyse their causes in thorough details. But we often take success for granted and quickly move on.
It is useful to spend some time, on your own and with your team, to really suck out every learning point you can extract from a successful experience. It is good for the team moral, it builds trust and it helps the team integrate what can and need to be repeated.
What if no success springs to mind? One option could consist of crafting one for your team. It can be a small team challenge, part or not of your main project, or anything that could count as a successful team experience. Find what works with low pressure tasks, then look back: What have you done differently to make it work? What has the team done differently?
Those 5 questions are not trick questions. They are simple and as a manager you need to be able to reflect on your own answers. These questions will hopefully highlight some of the variables that you can modify in order to change the team dynamics. Variables are ingredients and you are the scientific preparing the formula. It takes constant adjustments, trials and errors, but there are so many opportunities for learning and growth that it makes the whole journey worthwhile.
And for you, what has been your experience with globally distributed virtual teams?