Long-Term Business Success: It's Evolution, Stupid

Virtual Teams: Different- Not More of the Same

How to Overcome Domination by a Few

Click here to
sign-up to receive
the free Newsletter
See Past Issues
January 2010

Virtual Teams: Different- Not More of the Same

Although I have been successfully consulting to executive teams for over 25 years, I know that working with global virtual teams requires additional skills and designs. In this interview, Ana Reyes, a consultant to global, virtual teams shares her insights into how to cultivate collaboration and trust by intentionally designing interactions and systems to overcome the psychological barriers to communication created by distance and technology.

Interview Highlights
In this interview, you will:

Find out how virtual team issues vary with a company’s level of sophistication and experience with global, virtual teams
Learn new rules and protocols for humanizing virtual communication, as well as building trust and collaboration
Gain insights into how virtual teams are different from collocated teams
Learn how to identify and manage cross-cultural communications
Find out how building a "sense of community" enhances communications and Collaboration

Michael Seitchik: Ana, while many people I know have had experience leading and facilitating global virtual teams, they do not yet have a framework or model in their heads to help them assess and diagnose their unique needs. What is your framework?

Ana Reyes: I classify businesses as being in one of three levels of sophistication when it comes to their evolution in virtual, global organizational capabilities. Their challenges differ according to their degree of experience and sophistication.

The least experienced, I call first generation firms. They are relatively new to virtual collaboration and are not very comfortable with it. For example, they try to collaborate face-to-face even when their teams are geographically dispersed, preferring to travel to hold meetings. They need basic help in setting up the technological and human infrastructures to support virtual work. If their teams cross several cultures, they may also need help in dealing with cross-cultural issues online.

Currently, most firms are second generation organizations and this is where I spend most of my consulting time. These firms can have a very wide range of sophistication and competence in dealing with the challenges of virtual and global work. For example, some of their teams have cross-cultural experience and training tools, and others may have protocols for working across time zones. Yet, others in the organization may not even know that tools or resources are even available to support virtual and global work. Even when teams have access to technologies that support virtual teams, these technologies are not leveraged because people either do not have the right training, and/or there are no enterprise-wide protocols or guidelines.

As a result of the difficulties involved with coordinating dispersed teamwork support systems in organizations at this stage, people default to sorting through volumes of messages on several different channels. There are no firm-wide standards or team agreements on who gets copied on what or what is an appropriate response time to emails, when to use web conferences as opposed to phone conferences, etc. People may use different platforms or vendors for support so people are often scrambling at the last minute to load yet another piece of software before they can join a video conference and, as a result, are ten minutes late to the meeting. Second generation organizations need help with designing basic team and/or enterprise level management and support systems for virtual and global teaming.

In third generation companies, virtual collaboration is part of their fabric and culture. The major issue for these companies is how to support continuous improvement, especially in light of rapidly improving technologies and the quickly changing cultural composition of their dispersed teamwork. Third generation companies need help innovating ways to leverage their virtual and global collaborative capabilities as a source ofcompetitive advantage.

So the types of issues companies face are directly related to their degree of sophistication.

MS: In my experience, I find that many people in second generation firms get frustrated not only with the technology, but with how to collaborate with and manage others who are many miles and time zones away. Helping teams become effective is hard enough when people are face-to-face. What do you do to assess virtual teams and then help make them more effective? Are there typical issues?

AR: There are several key areas of focus that are critical when assessing global, virtual team effectiveness. So while what I recommend is customized to particular team needs and goals, let me give you some typical second generation issues and suggestions.

Virtual interactions demand new cultural forms of communication and social influence that are different from methods used in face-to-face team settings. You need to learn new rules and manage a different set of expectations and capabilities.

Take a simple, yet powerful difference between synchronous and asynchronous exchanges. In synchronous communication, the sender of the message is generally in control. So in a face-to-face situation or over the phone, when a boss asks a subordinate, “What do you think of my plan?” the person has to give some kind of immediate response, even if the subordinate isn’t prepared to give one.

If the same question were asked by the boss in an asynchronous medium such as email or an online discussion forum, control of the exchange can shift to the receiver – the subordinate. The subordinate can control when to respond. If the boss gets no immediate response, does it mean the subordinate didn’t see the email yet, the subordinate is intentionally ignoring the boss, or is the person taking the time to give a thoughtful response? In such asynchronous exchanges, the sender can feel frustrated or angry because of a lack of a prompt response. At the same time, the subordinate may be busy with a hundred other priorities unknown to the boss who is in another continent and has little understanding of the subordinate’s situation. You can see a simple exchange can easily turn into a source of conflict because virtual technology creates different types of interpersonal and team dynamics.

Interestingly, similar message exchange problems occur in multicultural communications. For example, how directly should a question be stated to a subordinate by a boss? What is the expected wait time for thoughtful response? How directly will some cultures answer what they perceive as an awkward question? Does “yes” mean, “Yes, I understand the question and will respond when I have spent enough time to give you an educated response”, or does it mean, “I will never answer this question” and after enough time has gone by without a response, the boss will understand that this extent of delay on the receiver’s part means “no”.

Fortunately, similar interventions can be designed to help both types of communication problems.

As a result of these kinds of issues in virtual interactions, you need to set up very specific rules and guidelines you would never have to think about with collocated, culturally homogeneous teams. The idea is to create agreements for communication that take into account different cultural practices. For example, teams must take the time to establish agreements for collaborative tool mastery and digital communication norms. Aside from the need to establish protocols, most second generation firms face the need to humanize virtual interactions and minimize the psychological feelings of distance so communication and collaboration can feel as natural as possible.

MS: Building trust is always a big issue for teams. I have heard some people say that building trust in virtual teams is essentially the same as it is for collocated teams. I have also heard others say it is very difficult to build trust in the same ways and they are looking for help. What are some ways someone can increase engagement, trust and feelings of connectedness?

AR: The best place to start is to build a sense of community. For example, I often have team members create profiles for each community. While the profile might change from situation to situation, some basics I have them include are how and when individuals prefer to be contacted. Do they prefer to be contacted via email, cell or IM? What are the best times to collaborate with others? For some teams, time zones become an important part of their contact preferences. I also have people share what skills, experiences, capabilities and individual goals they bring to bring to the team so they can figure out how to align with one another to reach their individual and team goals. Of course, there should be space to allow people to share some personal things about themselves so people can get a sense of each other as people.

One goal of a profile is to get people excited about who else is on the team. Otherwise, it is hard to get strangers engaged and get the team moving forward. I want to add that for the purposes of making people feel engaged and looking forward to interacting with the team through virtual interaction, it is very important to choreograph and design each different interaction mode, whether it is a synchronous web conference or an asynchronous discussion board so that each interaction feels like it is part of an integrated whole. The technology has to be appropriate for the type of interaction that is needed. People have to know how it fits in with the overall objectives and functioning of the team. There has to be an agreed-upon pace and a set of processes people can rely on. In the virtual world, people need a reliable structure to help build trust.

It should be noted that for third generation organizations, the issue shifts to the challenges of facilitating the creation of virtual networks and structures within the enterprise as a whole as well as with the firm’s larger ecosystem that includes customers, suppliers and strategic partners. Third generation organizations have to design social and technical infrastructures that support large scale human system access, human network connections, knowledge exchanges , collaborative innovation and external alliance development. This is a whole different conversation.

MS: How else can you build trust and a feeling of connectedness to the team? For example, I have found, like you have, that giving teams a structure and some guidelines was just as important as helping them get to know each other. I assume there are other things you can do to help build a reliable structure and help people feel connected. Can you share some examples?

AR: Yes, there are additional things to consider.

For example, you can do rather simple things to help people feel more connected to others on the team. With one virtual team I worked with a number of years ago, I had them schedule a monthly one hour video lunch call that could not be about work. The call was about what was going on in people’s personal lives, about current events, etc. They had the types of conversations people in collocated teams have on the way to the meeting or when they bump into each other in the hall. With virtual teams, such conversations need to be structured into the design – into the choreography of the dance people have with each other.

This monthly call was just one aspect of a teamwork design based on that particular group’s interaction preferences. Together with the team leader, I created an integrated approach to her team that included phone, video and web conferences and instant messaging, as well as erooms and email. Each technology had a specific role in an overall teamwork design that leveraged the suite of tools so thoughtfully selected by their IT group and helped people to build a productive and engaging team environment.

I also help teams do trust audits.

Research reviewed by Duarte and Snyder has shown that in virtual teams, trust is based on three factors.

First, is the person competent in their role? Is the leader a competent leader? Is the team member representing the global supply chain department knowledgeable about the function and how it impacts others?

The second factor is does the person walk the talk. In the distributed world this could mean that the person answers my email in the agreed upon amount of time.

Third, does the person look out for the best interest of others. Does the person care? For example, does the leader properly integrate new team members onto the team? Similarly, when someone leaves the team, does the leader acknowledge their contributions and make these accomplishments visible enough throughout the virtual organization so new opportunities to contribute are open to them? That is, does the leader show that they care about others.

I think it is important for a team to agree on what behaviors indicate competence, integrity and caring so the team can monitor how they are doing on those behaviors and what they need to do to continue to build trust.

Discussions about what builds trust are particularly important in cross-cultural teams. For example, in some cultures a competent leader is someone who is very directive and tells people what to do. In other cultures, team members who show initiative and collaborate with the leader are viewed as high performing. It is critical to know what people want and expect out of each other in order to co-create teamwork and leadership practices that respect different cultural values.

MS: Speaking of cultural differences, in my experience, many non-Western cultures are not as comfortable as Westerners in expressing emotions directly. While many of us may be used to talking about why someone isn’t walking the talk, do you have to do anything differently due to cultural differences in global virtual teams?

AR: Yes, for example, traditional Asian cultures tend to be more controlled in expressing their emotions and more indirect in their communications. You need to adjust how you design the discussion. For example, if you have the team fill out an on-line poll on a topic you typically get a range of responses. You can then have a discussion on why there is a range of opinions. People who are not comfortable directly expressing their own opinions can then refer to the data to discuss how others might have a particular opinion. That is, they do not have to identify it as their own opinion but can express it by empathizing with the opinion of some unidentified others on the team. It is a more indirect way of expressing their views.

MS: It seems that with virtual teams you need to be much more explicit and intentional in what you do as a leader. You have to be much more vigilant in diagnosing what is going on and acting quickly if there are any hiccups.

AR: Right. You will have lots of bumpy conversations as opposed to smooth ones because of the technology and the fact you are not collocated. For example, you can hit a lot of bumps because you do not know how to break into a conversation. People end up either talking over each other and/or having awkward periods of silence. Or, different cultures have different rhythms in their conversations and people get frustrated trying to express themselves, make a point or feel they are being heard.

You cannot expect to have smooth conversations, so you need the skills to overcome the bumps.

MS: For example?

AR: You first have to recognize when bumps in the interaction process occur, then make them explicit and finally deal with them. You have to pause the discussion, describe what is going on and get the team to discuss it. You can create protocols for recognizing and working through these issues. These bumps are a normal part of working in global virtual teams. This is the new normal.

You have to design conversational spaces to explicitly deal with issues that arise during virtual meetings in order to replace the informal and unplanned interactions people have when they are collocated and can debrief or discuss what just happened.

MS: Is there a way people can find out more about how you have coached leaders of virtual global teams?

AR: I would suggest my most recent article entitled “Coaching Virtual Global Leaders: The Communications Challenge” in the International Journal of Coaching in Organizations (IJCO) 2009, Issue 2, Vol. 7, pages 122-136. You can purchase the article at the IJCO site at

MS: I know from the collaborations you and I have done designing programs to build a sense of community through combinations of collaborative media including “receptions” in virtual space using avatars, working with virtual teams can be quite exciting and productive.

However, it takes a new mindset and a new set of skills to develop and manage virtual global teams. Understanding the various collaborative media available and how to match team collaboration goals with the right media, as well as how to leverage full capacity of the chosen media can be quite daunting even for those with some experience in virtual teams.

New and exciting collaboration tools are being introduced at an extremely rapid pace, making it hard to both keep up and to make sure that different teams in your organization are using the same tools.

However, these new tools are making it easier and easier to humanize virtual interactions and minimize the psychological feelings of distance so communication and collaboration can feel as natural as possible. The possibilities are quite exciting and can truly facilitate collaboration across time and distance.

Ana, thank you for your insights and I look forward to continuing to collaborate with you both in person as well as virtually.