9: Social Tools and Virtual Teams

Use of social tools to maintain relationships with customers often takes center stage, but a far more common use that gets less attention is the internal use of social media to share information and resources among working teams.

(EN: The author is a bit too enthusiastic about "virtual offices" where people work from home - that never did catch on to a great extent. However, it's common for people in different buildings on a campus, or different office locations, to work collaboratively, along with vendors and consultants who may be in other cities or other countries, and the use of social tools is helpful, though it tends to be collaboration tools such as SharePoint rather than what most people consider to be social tools. )

While there are financial incentives for changing to virtual offices, the enabler is largely technology. Servers and networks replaced physical paper files, e-mail and teleconferencing replaced memos and meetings. As such, there is no longer a necessity for most businesses to require its people to be co-located in a physical location in order to work collaboratively.

Social media takes this a step further, by replacing face-to-face conversation with digital communications (text, voice, or video) that can enable people to communicate across distance and time. (EN: This is not necessarily social media - chat, IP telephony, message boards, and Web cams are older technologies that are leveraged and branded by social.)

The emergence of mobile technology further extends the power of communication, enabling people to reach other anywhere, at any time, provided they are in range of a signal. Not only are employees not tethered to an office building, but they are no longer necessarily tethered to a desk in their own homes.

Why Virtual Teams Make Sense

The author cites a number of cultural factors over the last fifty years that have required employers to be more flexible.

The negative trend is culture: the model of the manufacturer of physical goods, which requires people, machines, and material to be in a single location, was simply carried over to services and information businesses. Also, the distrust of employees and the belief that they will not make productive use of time unless they are closely and constantly supervised is a barrier to allowing them to work from remote locations, even though there is no objective requirement for being in a common location. Simply stated, business is stuck in the industrial age (at best) and has not caught up to the capabilities of the information age.

The author goes on for a while about technology, largely repeating what has been said about tools that enable workers separated by space and time to work collaboratively.

There is some consideration of the impersonal aspect of communication - how messages in text are easily misconstrued because they do not convey a tone of voice, facial expression, and other nonverbal signals that add meaning to the message and enable the speaker to detect when the listener is getting it, or when he might need to try a different communication tactic to get the point across clearly. However, the use of voice communication and video conferencing are overcoming these limitations.

Aside of individual conversations, there's also the perception that virtual team members lack visibility within an organization and do not "bond" on a personal level with colleagues in the same way that people who work in the same physical space would. While this seems inconsequential, it has a significant impact on interactions between individuals and the morale of working groups.

Also in terms of groups, there remains difference in the degree to which individuals are fluent with technology. Chances are, you will not staff a team where 100% of individuals are capable and comfortable with collaborating using social tools. Some will be left out, and their skills and experience will not be effectively brought to bear on the work.

Tools are also an issue. Often, the decision-makers in charge of determining the technology and platform the team will use to collaborate are not themselves users of the tools, and other considerations (namely, what's cheapest) come to bear. As such, the tool doesn't "work," and it's generalized to suggest that social media will not work, and people can go back to their comfortable routine.

But by far, the most difficult aspect of the virtual team is management skills and culture. There is little history or experience that provides guidance to an individual who must give leadership to a group of people via the electronic channels; and there is great reluctance by managers who suggest that their people cannot be trusted to over their tacit fear of being unable to do their jobs using these unfamiliar tools.

Handling the Challenges of Managing a Virtual Team

Managing virtual workers is different to managing workers in a physical space, though little thought is given to the differences in techniques and skills a manager will need. A few "trouble spots" will be considered.

Team- and relationship-building is constrained, and it is difficult for an individual to develop trust of their peers and manager when they have only "met" through the proxy of a computer, where communication is as-needed and there are no social encounters.

The author suggests a "consistent rhythm" of communicating with team members, setting a specific regular time to communicate, and a consistent time for them to communicate.

Also, don't take trust for granted - the formal authority you have as a manager does not automatically make people trust you; that is built over time. Likewise, don't assume trust between team members. Leveraging voice and video help to humanize you to your people, and your people to one another.

Another tip is to break up large tasks into smaller pieces that can be accomplished faster: this makes for more frequent contact and a sense of progress, as opposed to larger tasks that result in long gaps in communication and anxiety over whether things are actually being done.

While project management tools provide a remote team with a common frame of reference for the tasks that must be done on a complicated project, it does not substitute for conversation to help coordinate efforts and sort out conflicts that arise. Especially for virtual teams, it requires a leader to be more proactive in making sure that people work things out rather than letting problems fester in silence.

Personality conflicts do not go away when people interact through a computer - in fact, they can become exacerbated as people on a team do not have the ability to learn one another's traits and communication styles as they do in an office environment. The author suggests that personality profiling and training can be helpful in understanding people you don't interact with very often.