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SPIE Professional January 2008

Managing Virtual Collaboration: Talk to Me!

M. Katherine Brown, a coauthor of a book on managing virtual teams, says the key to successfully working in a team that doesn't meet face-to-face is communication.

By M. Katherine Brown

Both the challenges to working virtually and the best practices for a successful virtual team boil down to one word--communication. Not surprisingly, communication is the number one issue brought up at project reviews, and problems with the communication channel (either receiving or sending) can cause the team or project to fail faster than anything else.

Given that each individual brings a unique frame of reference and assumptions to every situation, we should be surprised that communication succeeds as often as it does. Add the technology, time zone, and infrastructure issues that managing virtual teams entails, and it's nothing short of a miracle that effective communication occurs when collaboration is not face-to-face.

However, more often than not, communication works through e-mail, telephone and other channels, and virtual teams survive and thrive.

Virtual teams that work successfully generally treat others with respect, consideration, and compassion. They also share the following characteristics or best practices.

Upper Management Supports the Team
Upper management communicates its support for the team and the project by ensuring that the team has the equipment and cash flow to do its job effectively and by removing obstacles to success. Examples include upgrading Internet access in a remote field office or requiring the IT department to allow the team to install instant messaging applications to facilitate communication.

Expectations Are Explicit
The project manager and team take time during the initial project meeting to ensure that all assumptions and expectations are made clear and are stated explicitly. Things that come up in casual conversation with co-located teams must be explicitly communicated in virtual teams. You cannot assume that "everyone" knows what you know with virtual teams. Different cultures view formality, time, and other aspects of business and social interaction differently, so the team must develop its own "culture" and guidelines for these items.

Goals and Responsibilities Are Clear
Shared understanding of the goals and tasks and of each individual's function within the team and project are critical. The project manager ensures that everyone on the team understands how their function fits with the project goals and tasks, as well as what the dependencies are for each task. Team organizational charts are available, processes are documented, all project information is stored in a central repository that all team members have access to, and team members understand the importance of regular and proactive communication.

Team Members Get to Know Each Other
Since co-workers are not able to interact in person, opportunities for teambuilding should be built in to daily business. At the initial project meeting, team members should introduce themselves and provide a bit of personal information so that the others can get to know them. At the beginning of each status meeting, the team needs to take time for a personal, informal check in. As part of the project information repository, team members can create a personal page or project-related blog that tells a little about themselves.

picture of Authors of Managing Virtual Teams

Coauthors (from left to right) Char James-Tanny, M. Katherine Brown, and Brenda Huettner used a wiki to write their 2006 book on managing virtual teams.

Team Members Play Well With Others
Mature, responsible team members play well with others. Nothing implodes a virtual team faster than a flame war over a minor misunderstanding. In addition to having the right skills for the job, team members must be emotionally mature enough to not take things personally, to verify their understanding instead of just reacting, and to assume until proven otherwise that the other person's intentions were good, even if the communication effort was not as appropriate and clear as it should have been. They must also be able to stay focused on what is best for the team and the project.

Communication Is Proactive
In a virtual team, communication must occur early and often, and team members must always close the communication loop by acknowledging receipt, checking in regularly with teammates, communicating issues immediately, and sharing ideas regularly. Nuances that are easily understood in face-to-face communication are often lost in virtual communication. That's because 70% of what's communicated is non-verbal. So the first response to a negative interaction should be, "Perhaps there is a misunderstanding," and checking in, rather than, "That person is angry with/out to get/ being mean to me," and checking out.

Information "Bank" Is Shared and Accessible
Everyone on the team needs to have access to the same information and research data, so a shared repository for information and knowledge about the project is essential. This information needs to be centrally located (e.g., Web portal, wiki, network drive that team can VPN to, etc.) so that the team, regardless of geography or time zone, can access the information. The information also needs to be organized, version controlled, and have effective metadata associated with it so that people can retrieve it easily.

Infrastructure Is Supportive
Technology, processes, and infrastructure must facilitate communication and getting the work done without in-person interaction. Even the most cohesive teams will fail if they do not have the appropriate tools to get the job done, or if there is disparity in the tools available to team members working remotely. Effective change control and quality assurance procedures are also even more important with virtual teams because it is so easy for something to slip through the cracks.

Hiring for Virtual Teams
 Excerpted from Managing Virtual Teams

picture of book cover, Managing Virtual TeamsWorking virtually requires that team members exhibit certain characteristics, such as curiosity, enthusiasm, proactiveness, responsiveness, self-motivation, flexibility, strong work ethic, and self-management. Whether or not the candidate is familiar with a particular toolset is less important than whether or not the candidate can work effectively with minimal supervision and has a "can-do" attitude. ...

As with any hiring decision, skills alone are not enough to ensure that a candidate will be successful on your team. The candidates must also possess the personality and character traits that fit with the other team members.

If you have a choice between someone who is knowledgeable, but obviously difficult, and someone who is less experienced, but enthusiastic, consider choosing the less-experienced-but-enthusiastic person. You will likely have far fewer personnel issues and may get someone who will build the team synergy.

Conflict in a Virtual Team, an Excerpt

When two or more people in the same office have a disagreement, they can sometimes just sit down in a room somewhere to talk things out. Or, the manager can call the people involved into a meeting and hear both sides of the story at once, allowing the team members to hear each other's arguments.

In a virtual team, however, these in-person meetings are often difficult or impossible to set up. If conflicts are left unaddressed too long, they can adversely affect the relationships between team members and the ultimate success or failure of the entire project. In addition, conflict tends to escalate more quickly on a virtual team than it does for co-located teams because team members have little visibility into the challenges that their teammates are facing in their daily lives.

In any team, conflict can result from differing work styles or expectations, from team members having different goals or methodologies or even, sometimes, from hidden agendas. When you add the challenges of a virtual team, you are also adding the problems that come with more complex communications, and the possibility of team members making assumptions about each other that may not be accurate. Finally, when you have a multicultural virtual team, you add in potential conflict based on cultural differences.

Resources for Managing Virtual Teams

  • Brown, M. Katherine. Managing Virtual Teams: Getting the Most from Wikis, Blogs, and Other Collaborative Tools. Plano, TX: Wordware Publishing, 2007.
  • Duarte, Deborah L., and Nancy Tennant Snyder. Mastering Virtual Teams. 3rd ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2006.
  • Garton, Colleen and Kevin Wegryn. Managing Without Walls: Maximize Success with Virtual, Global, and Cross-cultural Teams. Lewisville, TX: MC Press, 2006.
  • Malone, Ollie. 101 Leadership Actions For Creating And Managing Virtual Teams. Amherst, MA: HRD Press, 2004.
  • Williams, Val. Virtual Leadership. Edison, NJ: Shadowbrook Publishing, 2002.
Web Sites:

photo of author M. Katherine BrownM. Katherine Brown

M. Katherine "Kit" Brown is the principal for Comgenesis LLC, a technical communication services and consulting company, and co-author (with Brenda Huettner and Char James-Tanny) of Managing Virtual Teams: Getting the Most from Wikis, Blogs, and Other Collaborative Tools. (ISBN-13: 978-1-59822-028-5) The book is available from Wordware Publishing.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4200801.01

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