Managing remote and virtual teams requires a delicate balance between IT tools and actual processes and practices.
By Samuel Greengard
Over the last few years, remote and virtual teams have emerged from the corporate shadows to become a regular component of the workplace. The question is no longer whether to use these teams but how, where and when. CIOs increasingly find themselves at the center of this equation. The intersection of technology and business processes determines the success of an initiative—as well as how agile and fast an enterprise can respond to ever-changing conditions and market trends.
Here are five things that every CIO should focus on:
A well-defined strategy and clear objectives are essential. There's a need to address remote work on a few different levels, points out Donna Dennis, owner and consultant at Leadership Solutions, a Pennington, New Jersey, firm that has worked with Cisco Systems, BP, American Express, Johnson & Johnson, and many others. Organizations must build an overall strategic framework for how and when to use remote and virtual teams, but it's also critical to establish policies and procedures that flesh out an initiative. "Managers of virtual teams need to realize that their team is distributed and they must use different communication and managerial strategies," says Anna Danés Boix, director at MVT, a global consulting and training firm. "A person who works virtually must be somewhat autonomous by nature, and he or she should be a good communicator." Danés Boix says that this ultimately loops back into human resources and hiring policies. "An HR department must understand the characteristics that a person in a distributed team needs to have."
Technology really matters. Not all hardware and software tools are created equal. And while systems that work for one organization may not work for another, there's a deeper issue that sounds simple but eludes too many IT departments. "Technology is the basis of a good remote team. If the technology doesn't work, if the tools workers use are slow, if they disconnect or are hard to use, you are starting with the wrong foot because you will have a frustrated team to start with," explains Danés Boix. She says that IT must ensure that technology operates flawlessly and that it is maintained and upgraded constantly. IT and team leaders should meet regularly to discuss functionality, performance and other matters.
Cultural and communication issues will make or break virtual and remote teams. As the technology has advanced, demands and expectations have grown. However, in many cases, there's too little thought given to the cultural components and building the right communication and collaboration pathways. "Simply connecting teams isn't enough," Dennis says. Managers and team members must adjust and adapt to entirely different workflows and procedures. Danés Boix says that managers are a critical link. They must think and act differently, including how to facilitate teams and serve as a positive influence. "When managers achieve a level of 'super communication,' team members tend to mimic the patterns and the entire organization works smarter and better," she says. However, Boix points out that goals and objectives need to come from the entire team, not just the manager.
Adapt tools and technologies to team preferences, but also establish a framework for communication. It's clear that Boomers and Gen Y have very different attitudes about communication and collaboration. Younger workers may prefer chat and video chat apps while older workers may feel more comfortable using the phone or email. "It's extraordinarily important to select the right tools and technologies for a particular task," Dennis says. "The focus needs to be on getting work done the fastest can best way possible, not necessarily the way any one person or group prefers." While there is clearly a gray area in terms of how organizations approach the issue, it's best to introduce policies and offer training in how to be productive. For example, picking up the phone to discuss an issue for 2 minutes may eliminate 20 minutes of chat or e-mail.
It's critical to establish clear boundaries. Danés Boix says the best remote and virtual work environments revolve around clear expectations, procedures and objectives. When people understand their role, there's less chance of dissention and breakdowns. It's vital to respect a person's private life and allow team members latitude about connecting and disconnecting—especially in a global environment, Dennis says. "Some people may want to work on weekends and take time off during the week and others may want to protect their weekends. A team may have overall preferences." In the end, the key is balancing flexibility with structure and ensuring that the technology facilitates the desired workflows.
Lastly, when in doubt about how to act, pause for a moment and approach the problem or situation as if you were a member of a remote or virtual team and ask yourself, "What would I want?"
About the Author
Samuel Greengard is a contributing writer for CIO Insight. To read his previous CIO Insight article, "Five Things to Know About Agile Development," click here.
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