Remote control: How to get the best from virtual teams

The human connection is key to effective online collaboration

Advances in communications technology have paved the way for teams of people to collaborate virtually, unrestricted by geography or time zones. But an understanding of how best to design, manage and motivate virtual teams – or V-teams – is still in its infancy.

New research by Will Felps, a senior lecturer and associate head of the school of management at UNSW Business School, along with recent postgraduate Virginia Kane, has lifted the lid on this topic.

The research was initiated after a conversation between Kane and an employee of a leading technology company, who told her, "we have cutting-edge technology but we still struggle with implementing virtual teams".

"It made me wonder how other organisations are dealing with both the challenges and the opportunities associated with virtual teams," Kane says.

She approached experts with experience in leading virtual teams, using a mixture of Skype, telephone and face-to-face interviews. Interviewees came from industries including telecommunications, technology, fast-moving consumer goods, mining, education, banking and insurance, and professional services. Some candidates had experience of leading virtual teams across more than one industry.

"The interviews were structured to get anecdotal stories, especially success stories," says Kane. "We looked for unique examples of best practice, that contributed to team achievement."

'Unless the norms are made explicit within the team, you’ll run into problems'


Like special forces

Kane has found that, despite there being little research in the area, the ability to work in and manage V-teams is becoming a key skill across business in general.

And Felps notes that the methods adopted by V-teams are increasingly finding a wider application. V-teams, for example, were among the first to adopt Google Docs.

"People's work practices are changing anyway, with an increase in working from home and working flexible hours," Felps says.

Of course, an important driver of V-teams is that it's now possible to source experts from places where wages are lower. "V-teams are like 'special forces' in the military, in that they can bring together experts from around the world," says Kane.

And the technology of V-teams is also being used where people could meet face to face.

Says Felps: "Everyone works on a virtual continuum today. Even people who interact in the same building may employ techniques from virtual teams.

"For some tasks, 'V-contact' is actually better than face-to-face contact. This is especially true in the area of brainstorming, where multiple people can contribute ideas at the same time and anonymous polls can suss out people's true opinions, thereby avoiding groupthink.

"One element of face-to-face conversation is that only one person can talk at a time, and ideas tend to converge on the first 'non-terrible' idea."

 Virtual lunches

Felps and Kane's research has uncovered two reasons why virtual teams often don't fulfil their promise.

The first is what Felps calls "problematic diversity". Having people from different functions, different locations, and even different cultures can lead to the formation of subgroups within the team. These "fault lines" lead to conflicting expectations about, say, time management or how decisions should be reached.

"Unless the norms are made explicit within the team, you'll run into problems," he says.

The second is the unappreciated benefits of face-to-face communications, such as bonding and esprit de corps. As this doesn't happen automatically in V-teams, managers consciously nurture relationships among team members.

The research has even uncovered instances of V-teams holding "virtual lunches" via conference calls, to replicate the camaraderie that binds conventional teams together.

"Virtual teams need to schedule time to discuss the unschedulable," says Felps.

 Sharing the base load

Rothelowman is an architecture and interior design practice with more than 120 staff across their Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane studios.

"With the Melbourne and Brisbane studios already collaborating, and the establishment of the Sydney studio in 2014, the practice draws on skill sets of the entire company," says Ben Pomroy, principal for the Sydney office.

Since 2010, the company has increasingly employed V-teams in its project work, something that Pomroy believes is becoming more widespread in his industry.

Rothelowman's approach to work can be informed by three geographical factors – their proximity to the client, their proximity to the project, and where the required skill set is located.

A hotel project in Sydney, for example, would require a Sydney architect to access local planning regulations, but may access the Melbourne studio for physical design, interior design, or advice on the hotel's brand. The Brisbane studio, meanwhile, has a lot of expertise in mid-rise residential buildings, while the Sydney studio excels in retail developments.

"From a commercial point of view, our experience of virtual teams means we can all share the base load of the company's work, and deal with the ebb and flow of the business," says Pomroy.

Joshua Amsellem is the design manager at Rothelowman's Melbourne studio, and during the past five years has both managed and been part of virtual teams.

Digital conferencing is part of Amsellem's everyday work experience. "Whatever I open up on my screen, people in the other studios can see the same thing," he says. This allows team members to sketch or brainstorm over the same set of drawings or 3-D models.

"People in different studios can work with a continuously updated central model. The immediacy of the process definitely improves productivity," says Amsellem.

'Ultimately, it’s not a technology discussion – it’s a people discussion'           


The human connection

The main challenge Pomroy has encountered with V-teams is simply internet speed, especially in Brisbane. The large amounts of data necessarily flowing between the studios places the practice's in-house IT team centre stage in the success of any V-team project.

Amsellem agrees on the importance of the IT team understanding the needs of V-teams. Personally, he has found the use of cameras for virtual conferencing allows people to anticipate the delays and hesitations, which might otherwise be an impediment to successful communication.

On the people front, Pomroy has found that having V-team members meet in person at the beginning of a project is essential in breaking down any barriers raised by remote communication.

"We've found we need to establish the human and personal connection first, in order to make this work."

"The technology has caught up with the desire, and it can only get bigger," says Pomroy. "It gives so much flexibility to an architectural practice."

Says Amsellem: "Working virtually has nurtured the studio culture of the company as a practice, not just as separate offices."

 Future workplaces

Kane believes the research to date has suggested two further areas of study. The first is in the area of training, as there is presently little evidence of training specifically geared to virtual teams.

"Organisations need to find ways to put their people in the best position to be successful," she says.

But second, Kane believes that V-teams pose much bigger questions – about what the workplace of the future will actually loo?k like.

"In the next 10 to 20 years, we'll face increasing constraints on resources around the world which will limit travelling and commuting," she says.

"Artificial intelligence is already affecting jobs. How do you keep the human aspects alive and well in all of this, putting the right people together in a team to achieve the best outcomes?"

"It's not the technology that's the key. Technology is the enabler and facilitator that brings people together, and allows them to do better work, more effectively."

"Ultimately, it's not a technology discussion – it's a people discussion," Kane says.


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