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The website that you use for online shopping or the aircraft that takes you places have most likely been built through the collaborative effort of teams dispersed across continents. Organizations are increasingly turning global to take advantage of diverse talent, achieve operational and cost effectiveness, and inculcate the ability to respond to market demands with swiftness to be able to thrive in a highly competitive environment.

Virtual teams are the order of the day and, this, of course, has been facilitated by the rapid advancement of technology which has helped transcend distance, time zones, cultures and organizational boundaries. Virtual teams embody a distinctive shade of group dynamics, along with their concomitant set of unique challenges. There are umpteen examples of teams that have outshone their collocated counterparts in terms of productivity and effectiveness, but there are plenty that have shrivelled and fallen apart. So what makes a virtual team tick?

1 Relationship building

The single greatest challenge of virtual teams, according to Pratap G., senior director, human resources, at container shipping firm Maersk Global Service Centres (India) Pvt. Ltd in Mumbai, lies in building and managing long-distance professional relationships. And this is no mean task in a scenario where the opportunities to garner contextual and emotional cues through personal interaction are few and far between. This is also corroborated by a 2010 virtual team survey report published by RW3 CultureWizard, a New York-based intercultural training consultancy, which cites the inability to read non-verbal cues, absence of collegiality, difficulty in establishing rapport and trust, difficulty in seeing the whole picture, and a sense of isolation as some of the factors that pose impediments to the effective working of virtual teams. “The leader, under the circumstance, not only needs to engage with the virtual team members with extra care and sensitivity, but also create forums for people to interact with one another," says Mumbai-based Raj Bowen, managing director, PDI Ninth House, a global leadership solutions company.

2. Formalize team meetings

Establish the ground rules and protocols around audio or video meetings in terms of frequency, duration, agenda, minutes and participation; and be fair with time zones so as not to inconvenience a particular location each time. Enumerate the role of the facilitator, and rotate this role across team members to get people involved. Generate interest by tuning the agenda to address the inherent concerns of people—like where am I going, where is my team going, and where is my organization headed? Address these queries proactively by sharing team updates related to goals, achievements, senior management feedback, and the likely opportunities and threats facing the team. Offer organizational updates around business results, expansion plans and impending structural changes, if any. Draw people in by encouraging them to pose questions and share their thoughts and perspectives.

3. Meet one-on-one

Team members may feel isolated in the absence of connections that are forged easily at the water cooler, or the lack of opportunity to walk up to a colleague’s desk, or approach the manager with a quick question. Pratap emphasizes the importance of one-on-one meetings that don’t just focus on the task, but also stimulate relationships through conversations around career development and personal development plans. He is also a strong proponent of unscheduled, no-agenda meetings that provide quick touch points for deepening relationships. Similarly, leaders travelling on business trips could also make time to connect with virtual team members, cutting across reporting lines. These simple practices pay rich dividends by making people feel connected and cared for. Pratap says investing time to meet people at each location to understand their concerns, drivers, achievements, interests, likes, dislikes and the nuances of their cultural milieu helped him when he was taking the reins of a team across India, China, the Philippines and Denmark.

4. Provide informal forums for interaction

A degree of creativity in providing networking forums for people to learn about each other is imperative. For instance, inviting people to showcase their expertise by institutionalizing knowledge-sharing sessions on audio or video would not only motivate them, but also give others a chance to understand the value each person brings to the table. Similarly, a celebration of successes, festivals and birthdays, and encouraging people to talk about their interests and achievements outside work, sharing photographs, playing games and sharing virtual meals can go a long way in getting a virtual team to bond.

5. Team empowerment

Bowen highlights three imperatives for a leader to set the tone for the team’s success—independence, communication and empowerment. He advocates that leaders engage team members in devising team goals, provide clarity on roles and responsibilities, and allow a degree of independence and empowerment during execution, to enable them, in the interest of the larger team goal, to make decisions on the fly. And communicate enough. If need be, err on the side of over-communication.

6. Cultural sensitivity

UK-based Neil Payne, an expert in culture training, observes that as with incompatible software, problems can occur if people are running on different cultural coding. For instance, in Western societies people tend to be more direct in voicing their opinions, expressing a divergent viewpoint or challenging ideas irrespective of seniority or age. This is in sharp contrast to the Eastern ethos where people may hesitate in expressing a counter idea in deference to age and seniority, or may shy away from saying “no", or may overcommit while negotiating deadlines. For interactions to be more effective, therefore, managers need to be open to flexing their style to accommodate the cultural proclivities of team members.

7. Fluency with communication tools

It is vital for teams to build competency in using tools that promote communication by breaking down the barriers of distance. Videoconferencing equipment, videophones, desktops equipped with Web cameras, telephones and email facilitate communication between people at two or more locations, bringing a virtual interaction remarkably close to a personal one. So enhance your efficacy by understanding the protocol and the subtleties of etiquette associated with each of these tools. Follow some simple practices, like identifying yourself, keeping the message short, and speaking slowly and clearly to enhance the effectiveness of your voice messages. Similarly, convey your professionalism on the phone by observing an upright posture, avoiding the temptation to multitask, and adopting an appropriate tone with voice modulation. To increase your chances of getting the desired response to your email message, take a minute to think through these questions on appropriate structure, style and tone.

u What is the situation?

u What do you want the reader to do, think, say or feel on receiving your message?

u Who is the intended recipient and what communication style would be appropriate?

uWhat information should be included to enable the recipient to respond appropriately?

u Is writing the best medium, or would a quick chat on the phone be better?

In addition, collaboration tools providing features like shared workspace, a discussion forum, virtual calendar, instant messaging and presentation tools, allow virtual teams to communicate, view work progression and make real-time updates. Needless to say, the effective working of a virtual team is contingent upon the team members being conversant with these wide-ranging communication channels.

8. Collaborative culture

RW3 CultureWizard’s 2010 virtual team survey report highlights that respondents ranked willingness to share information, proactive engagement, and the ability to be collaborative as the top-most characteristics of a good virtual teammate. Yogi Sriram, senior vice-president and head, corporate human resources, at engineering firm Larsen and Toubro Ltd, Mumbai, says that the success of teams, and virtual teams in particular, rests on inculcating a culture where people keep promises, stick to the discipline of working around a well-defined agenda, where each team member’s role is clear and articulated, and building relationships lined with a personal touch is a way of life.

Charu Sabnavis is the director of Delta Learning, a human resources consulting and training company.

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