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Leading in a Virtual Team
                                                                                                                      -Praveen Jangira, PMP, CSM

Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is a process; working together is a success” - Henry Ford

 

Being the Project Manager of a virtual team can be very challenging. The normal rules for teams who are co-located does not apply to the virtual teams - it's a completely different ball game. The technology is changing every day and with the advancement in technology, it has become very easy to organize, meet and manage the teams. However, remote management or leading a virtual team has its own advantages and challenges.

 

Leading in a virtual environment is a challenging endeavor but if one can master it, it could results in:

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♦ Improved on time/on budget performance

♦ Improved innovation

♦ Higher job satisfaction

♦ Improved Trust, role clarity

 

The competitive edge in today's world resides in what we have in our brains and how we exchange, rework, distribute and absorb what is there. Therefore, it is critical to map the virtual distance within your team to identify the impact and apply management strategies to mitigate virtual distance, there by enhancing effectiveness. Why you should do that? Engaged teams mean elevated team performance leading to improved business results. One of the biggest problems is that the companies usually treat their virtual teams in the same manner as they treat teams who are colocated. As managers and leaders, we need to understand that there are different rules of the games and different practices for virtual teams.

 

What is Virtual Distance

 

Most people think of distance as a geographic separation. However geographic separation is only a part of the distance equation. Distance can refer to separation in time, separation between two points or separation in emotions. There was a research conducted by Karen Sobel Lojeski and Richard Reilly with virtual team. They began with the notion that geographic separation created emotional distance between coworkers. However, they quickly realized that geographic separation was only one and not even the most important element in creating a sense of distance. They coined the term “virtual distance” to refer to the psychological distance that results when people interact mainly through electronic media – no matter where those communications originate from or end. You can refer to Microsoft Executive Leadership series, “Uniting the Virtual Workforce” introduces the concept of virtual distance. It goes a step further and offers proven methods for measuring the costs and guidance on managing them. Lojeski and Reilly crated this model to help manager 'map' the virtual distances on their teams. 

Physical distance is the aspect that most people associate with virtually. These factors are based on both space and time.

 

Geographic distance: Distance that can be measured. It could be tricky because we cannot read body language.

 

Time distance: Separation caused by time zone differences, it affects and can upset people's normal body clock and can have negative impact on performance and innovation.

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Organizational distance: Sense of separation brought on by differences in organizational reporting structures, practices these days to work across organizational boundaries, creates us vs. them (Global vs Regional), same business groups in different regions.

 

The virtual distance estimation tool given in the figure below can be used for mapping the physical distance.

 

Affinity distance is what develops when we don't establish the kinds of personal relationships that satisfy our social needs. In business relationships, it’s affinity that holds teams together despite location, nationality or organizational affiliation.

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When people can't attach themselves to one another, then work suffers. According to Lojeski and Reilly, when managers tell us they have trouble motivating those whom they don't see it's because there's no affinity in the group.

 

♦Cultural distance: Different work values cause problems through something as simple as differences in communication styles

 

♦ Social Distance: Develops when people hold a range of different social positions or status

 

♦Relationship distance: The extent to which you and other lack relationship connections from past work initiatives

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♦Interdependence distance: The psychology behind team member's commitment to one another or lack thereof and the sense of inclusion

 

Like Physical distance, Affinity distance has a virtual distance estimation tool for mapping your affinity distance as given the figure.

 

Operational distance is a sense that you are on a different playing field than those you work with. It is made up of a mix of troubles that plague us occasionally. It causes people to mentally shut others out.

 

 

♦Communications: A sense of separation from other resulting from less than meaningful interactions, for example vague emails

 

♦Multitasking: When occupied with many and varied tasks, we tend to feel far away from pretty much everything

 

♦Readiness distance: Feeling of detachment that grows when technical support can't fix problems

 

Operational distance can be measured by the tool given in the figure.

 

Distribution asymmetry: A sense of being far away from others either by virtue of isolation or too many people residing in one place where there is a lot of power.

 

In the study conducted by Lojeski and Reilly on more than 300 different projects, some of the companies made a conscious decision to co-locate all of its employees. While, as expected, there was little virtual distance from physical factors. It was also discovered that operational and affinity distance factors created almost as much virtual distance as they found in globally distributed teams. Virtual distance can have significant impact on organizational performance and individual job satisfaction. It contributes to lost revenues, lower innovation and reputation damage.

 

Managers are like the air traffic controllers in terms of virtual distance. It is important to know exactly where virtual distance problems are. Mapping virtual distance provides a way to see up close the effects on your team. By virtual distance estimation tool for the physical, affinity and operational distance you can do mapping of virtual distance.

 

Once we understand the mapping and identify the distance and relationships that need the most attention, there are two approaches we can take, short-term tactics or choose long term strategies. Many of these tactics and strategies might be repetitive in nature and you might have been doing or might have done. While doing the mapping just think about areas where you need to pay more attention and increase your efforts. Physical distance creates the sense that others are far away which results in a sense of isolation. While we cannot reduce or do away with physical distance or time zones, however there are few practical tips that can help reduce this sense of isolation;

 

♦Judicious use of face to face meetings and virtual classroom

 

♦Establish regular interactions or meetings to convey a sense of reliability about when things are going to happen etc. Time distance creates the sense of isolation and a sense that we are not well connected. This way people will begin to experience more closeness by anticipating work schedules that are dependable.

 

♦Practicing precision in communication

o Listen actively

o Share contextual information

o Use bullets and outlining

o Spell things out

 

♦Virtual meetings provide an opportunity for managers to bring their remote teams together

 

♦Addressing multitasking by being aware of when the team members are overburdened and help them set boundaries and priorities

 

As we think about leading in virtual environment in the affinity component, we move to long-term strategies. Key strategy is to combat perceived isolation by building and maintaining trust. Isolation causes people to start getting anxious or alienated and to mentally switch off or become resentful. Leaders need to encourage conversations and share experiences. There are three important factors that lead to the development of trusting relationships, they are, ability, integrity and good will. These are actions that the manager should take along with encouraging their employees. Giving trust and getting trust. In order to reduce social distance, highlight other people's accomplishments, recognize people's contributions and recognize unsung heroes. Use scheduled project meeting to showcase team members. Think back on the virtual distance map that discussed short-term tactics and long term strategies and understand where your opportunities are by managing the virtual distance.

 

Virtual teams are a reality in almost all the organizations, more so in IT organizations. With increased communication and the right tools to aid in Project Management, virtual offices or teams can increase efficiency and effectiveness. Project Management can be the key to better task organization and communication, and can keep those home based companies focused on the main objective – increasing business success. It's time to stop thinking of virtual teams as a special case, instead start developing strategies, methodologies and competencies to deal with the challenges virtual teams create.