We offer our workshops, trainings and consulting remotely, in presence and in hybrid form.

VIRTUAL TEAMS –
ONE GOAL, SEVERAL LOCATIONS

Networking and cooperation beyond the office walls: Digitalization and changing living and working environments mean that cooperation no longer implies being together in one place and at the same time. We help virtual teams to improve the efficiency of such cooperation and focus on a common goal. Virtual cooperation can also be real and fun.

THE IMPORTANCE OF VIRTUAL COOPERATION
IS ON THE INCREASE

More and more often, employees work in different locations, in different offices, in the home office or in co-working spaces - not only worldwide and nationally, but also on a local level. So communication and exchange of information routinely take place via video and web conferences, by phone or email. With all the attendant advantages and disadvantages.

There are more than enough buzzwords to choose from: new work, work-life balance, work at home or teleworking, workation, gig economy and many more. Where many companies are still struggling, however, is in finding the best way to handle cooperation in virtual teams and leadership at a distance. Of course, the classical rules of cooperation also apply to virtual teams. But there are also some specific challenges that have to be coped with in addition.

A BRIEF DEFINITION OF VIRTUAL TEAMS

Virtual teams are an organizational unit in which team members work together

  • for a limited period of time (and more and more often also over long periods)
  • with common goals
  • in different places and, if necessary, in different time zones,
  • cooperating across regional, national and company borders using
  • mainly digital or media-based communication (email, telephone, video conferencing).

MAKING VIRTUAL WORK EFFICIENT

As a management consultancy with several locations and consultants all over Germany, we know all about the challenges of virtual cooperation. Virtual teams usually require higher levels of clarity and transparency, as there are hardly any occasions where spontaneous exchanges can take place (e.g. in the canteen). Of course, clarity of purpose is good for efficiency in any team when it comes to:

  • Synchronization of daily business routines
  • Dealing with issues and common tasks requiring clarification
  • Common focus and strategic orientation
  • Transparency
  • Dealing with conflicts and differences of opinion
  • Regulating cooperation
  • Further development within the team
  • Communication channels, tools and methods

DIFFERENT LEVELS OF SUPPORT

We advise and support our clients with concrete methods, impulses and procedures for virtual teams. It's about ensuring success in virtual cooperation and using the challenge to grow as a team. Our approach focuses on different levels:

  • Culture and attitude
  • Individual support at skill level
  • Agreements, methods and routines at team level
  • Use of tools and technology (e.g. for project management)
  • Virtual team management

FIVE CHALLENGES FACING VIRTUAL TEAMS

Virtual cooperation has advantages, but it also has some downsides and challenges for teams.

Building trust and social exchange is more difficult, and at the same time technical difficulties may still arise, e.g. due to transmission errors, server or WLAN overload. In addition, a video conference between several people cannot convey things like subtle reactions to what has been said. Especially if the persons involved have hardly any contact points in ‘real life’, they find it difficult to assess each other and misunderstandings arise. In addition, some teams have to cope with language barriers and different time zones.

BUILDING MUTUAL TRUST

If team members are not in direct contact with each other, building up trust in dealing with other colleagues can be a challenge. People often find it easy to make contact on a professional level, but personal contact opens up a different way of building trust.

So it makes sense to arrange for people who work together virtually to meet up in the real world every now and then, even if this involves a lot of travelling. A kick-off with personal contact is an especially good starting point when a team is newly set up. If it is likely that the team will probably not meet up again for quite some time, this kick-off can be a little more intensive. If meeting up like this is not possible, it is worth setting up appropriate measures for confidence-building in cyberspace instead. This applies to the relationships within the team, including the manager.

SOCIAL EXCHANGE

In addition to the performance component, it is important not to leave the fact that work is a social activity out of account. One reason why co-working spaces are becoming more popular is the need for social contact with others amongst people working in virtual networks.

If a team is distributed over several locations of the same organization, they are likely to find sufficient direct social contact with other colleagues in their office, even if these are not part of the same team. The situation may be different for people working from home, who tend to work in isolation. Here too, it is important to set aside time for personal matters in the virtual environment and to bring the team together physically from time to time.

TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES

The choice of communication channels and cooperation platforms is extremely important. Software and hardware manufacturers are developing new products at a great pace, and this means a constant flow of updates and new features, perhaps even completely new programs for virtual cooperation.

Unfortunately, we often hear from the teams we work with that available technological improvements are not implemented as they should be. Some people find themselves left alone with the new technology, and this causes them trouble and frustration. And sometimes the corporate IT fails to keep up with current standards of user-friendliness. This affects the quality of communication, cooperation and ultimately the team’s performance and success.

HAVING A QUICK LOOK

It only takes a moment in the office, but it’s not so easy in a virtual team: a brief exchange of views on a topic to get input from colleagues. Or getting a good idea because someone happens to see what you are working on. Here too, it is important for virtual teams to create opportunities to help each other and exchange tips and ideas. It can also be a good thing, of course, if there is no colleague around who turns up at your desk and interrupts your train of thought - but there are also times when a brief exchange would have saved a long search or hours of work. So-called messenger tools can help here; they are like a short virtual “Could I just ask a quick question?” without the need to involve the other person directly in a phone call.

PERCEIVING HOW MUCH PEOPLE CONTRIBUTE

Where people work in physical proximity, workloads tend to balance out more or less by themselves. Everyone can see roughly how much and how long the others work. In virtual teams, the amount individual members contribute may vary or appear to vary. And regardless of whether such imbalances are real or imaginary, this can lead to conflicts which have a negative effect on team satisfaction and results.

However, there are several ways to make each individual's contribution visible, to define workloads in a clear-cut way and to ensure that the team works together on the issues that are of the greatest benefit.

Despite all the pitfalls mentioned above, the trend towards virtual cooperation continues. Not least so that less business trips contribute to reducing the company’s carbon footprint. If you would like set up virtual cooperation so that it creates added value - or you simply feel there is room for improvement in your virtual cooperation setup - please contact us. We will be pleased to advise you on how to achieve successful virtual cooperation.

Contact us!

Sebastian Luge is particularly interested in the design of communication and dialogue measures around change topics.

Sebastian Luge

Partner

+49.228-25 90 85.0

CONTACT

HOW VIRTUAL COOPERATION WORKS

Do you wish to put your team on the right course for success in a virtual or partially virtual environment? Then it is advisable to pay special attention to certain aspects.

THE FACTOR TEAM CULTURE

In order to produce good cooperation and good performance in virtual teams, the kind of team culture required is not basically different from that of teams working together in the same office. However, aspects that don't work well tend to have a much more negative impact in virtual teams. So it makes all the more sense to focus on and deal with even minor difficulties. The solution here is to conduct regular team reviews.

Communication media also play an important role here. Whenever videoconferencing is possible, this is better than telephone conferences. This also helps in multicultural teams where not all members communicate in their native language.

PROMOTING INDIVIDUAL SKILLS AND SELF-ORGANIZATION

In virtual teams it is not always immediately clear who can contribute which talents. This is especially true for talents that may not appear to have anything directly to do with the focus of the work, but whose integration can provide added value for the team. So it is important to create space for an exchange of ideas. And knowledge transfer doesn’t just happen on its own. Here too, it takes time and appropriate formats to enable the exchange of knowledge and information.

The capacity to organize one’s own work is of particular importance in virtual teams. Not everyone likes or has the inclination to organize themselves, and whether people have space for self-organization is often also a question of leadership style. Therefore it is important to find out the preferences and needs of managers and team members alike and to assist them as required.

CLEAR DEFINITION OF RULES, AGREEMENTS AND ROLES

What are the core working hours? Who can be contacted by telephone when questions arise, and when? How should knowledge and information be shared and work packages be distributed? Even these few questions show how important clear arrangements are for teams so that everyone has the same understanding of the processes involved. If colleagues do not (often) see each other and micro-coordination is difficult, unambiguous rules are extremely helpful. Although only within the bounds of common sense, of course, because superfluous bureaucracy and over-rigid rules hinder flexibility.

A good way of making sure that agreements can be adapted agilely and iteratively is to hold regular retrospectives focusing on processes and cooperation. Furthermore, it should be clear who can expect what from whom. Role descriptions are a good way to promote clarity.

LOOKING CLOSELY AT TOOLS AND TECHNOLOGIES

Just because everyone has access to a particular virtual cooperation tool does not mean that there is a common understanding of how to use it efficiently. A careful scrutiny of the team's requirements may reveal that the tool does not provide what is actually needed in practice.

Targeted analysis and the use of tool and process prototypes can quickly clarify what is actually needed for efficiency in a virtual team. For example, technology must enable virtual teams to share information as easily and asynchronously as possible, whether via chats, wikis, intranet, corporate social networks or file storage. It is important that everyone can work on the same document with the same version.

It goes without saying that all team members need to have or be able to acquire the required technical competence, and that people cooperating in cyberspace need correspondingly reliable equipment.

LEADING A VIRTUAL TEAM IS MORE DEMANDING

Managers of virtual teams usually have to meet the same demands as those of non-virtual teams. However, many things are more difficult to achieve, organize and establish in virtual teams. For example, there is a need for common goals and a common team vision. After all, a team is only a team when it is pursuing a goal that it can only achieve as a team and no individual can achieve alone. This applies equally to virtual teams, but it is usually more difficult to pull on the same rope and grow together.

Another challenge can arise through different cultural backgrounds and expectations as to the manager’s role. Although this applies to non-virtual teams as well, it is more commonly encountered in virtual teams, even if the participants only live in different regions of the same country. A degree of cultural sensitivity and good communication and dialogue skills are required here.

ESTABLISHING ROUTINES IN A VIRTUAL TEAM

Certain routines can give virtual teams a real productivity boost. One example is joint stand-ups for daily synchronization. Then there are virtual work sprints to tackle major issues, and of course regular planning meetings and retrospectives. What is right for any given team has to be considered from case to case, of course. It is important that routines are not allowed to take on a life of their own, as it were. Instead, there should be regular appraisals as to which processes and routines are really necessary and how they can be set up to be as efficient and goal-oriented as possible for all concerned.

SPEEDING UP DECISION-MAKING IN VIRTUAL TEAMS

Easy to coordinate in the office, sometimes tough and tedious in a virtual team. But even here, lean processes can be found that ensure both fast and high-quality decision-making without that need not be centrally directed. Have you ever heard of a ‘consultative individual decision’? Or about ‘delegation poker’? There are many helpful approaches available.

SENSIBLE USE OF VIRTUAL TEAM MEETINGS

Regularly connecting at appropriate intervals and checking back with each other as to the status of individual work packages should be a matter of course in a virtual team, and that is usually the case. However, our experience shows that the format and conduct of such regular meetings are often not perceived as being very useful by the participants. This is especially disadvantageous when it makes people withdraw from meetings or not participate at all.

Attention often wanders in a virtual meeting. Or some participants continue to do their other work at the same time and only join in the conversation when they are asked to. It is important to realize that time spent together in virtual teams is very valuable and must not be wasted. We support our customers in developing suitable formats to make virtual meetings efficient and meaningful.

TRANSITIONING FROM REAL TO VIRTUAL - OR VICE VERSA

If you are currently virtualizing your entire team or some members are going to work virtually in the future - e.g. from home following parental leave - then it is worth ensuring that the transition goes as smoothly as possible. This process will certainly also bring about benefits for those who continue to work in the office.

So far you have only got to know the rest of the team on a virtual basis? And now there is chance to meet in person? A great opportunity to take a look at the cooperation and common routines and to get to know each other better. We would be glad to supply ideas and concepts to use the occasion for sustainable development within the team.