How HR Can Support Virtual Work Teams
In 2010, SHRM asked HR professionals how they supported their organization's virtual workforce. The poll, Transitioning to a Virtual Organization, found the vast majority (76 percent) of respondents said they had established policies and procedures for virtual work and 66 percent had worked with IT to ensure there was support for questions from workers about the hardware and software required for virtual work. Only 37 percent of respondents, however, had provided e-learning opportunities for their virtual worker, and a mere 8 percent had provided cultural sensitivity training for their virtual leaders. Less than a quarter (20 percent) said they had provided training on leadership styles. The growth of virtual teams has clearly outpaced the support activities needed to ensure these teams' success.
Step 1: Participate in the Selection Process of Virtual Team Members and Leaders
The characteristics of successful virtual employees include self-motivation, self- reliance, and the ability to tolerate ambiguity. They are able to work independently but aren't "lone wolves", and they are good team members and excellent communicators. HR and talent management professionals can assist virtual team leaders at the team formation stage by assessing whether employees in contention for membership on a virtual team possess these skills. In addition, because it is expected that organizations will expand the use of virtual teams, assessing job candidates for these skills during the selection process will help position the organization for the future.
Effective virtual leaders understand that the lack of face-to-face interaction in virtual teams makes it difficult to establish trust and take it upon themselves to build that trust. Successful virtual leaders do this by focusing on team norms and how information is communicated (often by setting up communication protocols, setting team expectations and articulating objectives, and clearly defining team member roles). In addition, they ensure that all geographically dispersed team members "suffer equally" by rotating virtual meeting times to accommodate different time zones. These leaders find that offering frequent feedback, mentoring and coaching also help build communication and trust among team members.
It is easy to lose track of project deadlines when individuals work on virtual teams. Good team leaders closely track progress and productivity using software tools and other technologies to do so. Studies have found that good virtual team leaders manage virtual meetings well (ensuring that there is ample time for social relationship building, that all team members are participating, and that conflicts are resolved during virtual meetings). Effective virtual team leaders often communicate project progress through balanced scorecard measurements posted on the team's virtual workspace (Malhotra et al, 2005).
Effective team leaders also avoid the "out-of-sight, out-of-mind" syndrome by reporting virtual team activities and progress to other managers and stakeholders. This not only enhances the team's visibility, it also lets the team know that others value their work, thereby fostering a team mentality.
Effective virtual team leaders also ensure that members receive recognition from participating on the team. Examples of ways to recognize virtual team members include hosting virtual reward ceremonies, recognizing individual contributions at the start of virtual meetings, and making team members' local bosses aware of their contributions (Malhotra et al, 2007).
When forming virtual teams, HR and talent management professionals should be aware of the skills and competencies effective virtual leaders demonstrate and assess whether potential virtual leaders currently possess them or can develop them with additional training.
Step 2: Ensure For the Appropriate Selection, Training and Use of Virtual Team Technologies
Before a virtual team is formed, HR and talent management must consider the technologies teams will need to be successful. Virtual workers rely on these technologies to see facial expressions and to assess nonverbal cues–key drivers to establishing trust among team members. Instant messaging and chat platforms (like Yahoo! Messenger and Skype), shared technology services (like Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange), remote computer access, web conferencing (like WebEx and NetMeeting), file transfer ability, e-mail, and telephone (either hard-wired or VOIP) must be assessed by IT and HR, and made available to all virtual team members. HR should ensure that training on how and when to use these communication technologies is offered (and offered again as remote team members rotate in and out).
When implementing technologies for virtual team use, HR should consider creating a space in the organization's computer system specifically for that team's use—a section or a bulletin board—where team members can share personal experiences and family news. Creating such a social networking platform will encourage employees to interact on a more personal basis and help build trust and a sense of community among team members. Experts recommend that employers refrain from "policing" these areas because that may inhibit interaction among team members (Leonard, 2011). These virtual areas can be considered a kind of virtual break room.
Cisco's Response to Virtual Teams: A Collaborative Enterprise Framework
Cisco Systems, Inc. developed a model to help organizations align their business strategies with the emerging technologies that allow for virtual teamwork. Called a Collaborative Enterprise Framework, it is focused on managing people, processes and technology—in that order.
How do they know the framework is effective? They implemented it in their own organization.
According to Christine Fisher, head of Cisco's supply chain collaboration center, before implementing the framework, most collaboration among the 9,000 supply chain employees and 30,000 outsourced workers occurred through phone, e-mail and in-person meetings. With the company's rapid global expansion, the group turned to new technologies to help coordinate the resulting challenges.
The group started by using collaboration tools to address particular projects where virtual team input was necessary. For example, employees used Cisco WebEx Connect, a collaborative workspace and document sharing software, to create a blueprint for lean manufacturing. Employees also started using video conferencing technology to replace face-to-face meetings.
The use of these tools lowered costs by eliminating travel and increasing productivity. Most importantly, reports Fisher, they helped boost the quality of their efforts. Fisher found that employees provided richer contributions that were easier for all participants to see and comment on.
But her group found that simply providing collaborative tools to employees was not enough. Although employees wanted more of the latest and greatest collaboration tools like the corporate versions of wikis, Facebook, or My Yahoo sites, they often became information graveyards. "We've seen this not just in the supply chain team, but throughout Cisco," Fisher says. "People were so focused on the tools they didn't really think about how they would use them."
The group wanted to ensure that collaboration tools were acquired strategically, keeping the company's business goals in mind, and were used properly, so instead of continuing to roll-out technologies on an ad hoc basis, the group took a step back. They held a series of workshops where employees received basic training on Web 2.0 tools. Workshop participants were then asked to identify high-touch and problem areas where people and information intersect. Workshop participants then detailed various what-if scenarios to see how Web 2.0 tools might address various operational challenges. With the information gathered in these workshops, the group formulated a strategy for using new collaborative technologies to meet their needs.
As a result, the "Connected Supply Chain Workspace" was born, a place where all the people involved in Cisco's supply chain (partners and Cisco employees) can share pertinent information to coordinate their activities.
Source: Cisco Systems, Inc. (2009). Creating a Collaborative Enterprise.
Step 3: Train, Train, Train
There is no doubt; the skills and competencies required of virtual team members are high level and complex, making the odds of assembling that A-team of virtual teams who possess all the skills and competencies required to successfully navigate in a virtual environment a long shot. You may find that technical guru whose knowledge is critical to the project at hand, but who finds the expanded communication skills needed when working virtually challenging. Similarly, you may find that great communicator who has all the makings of becoming a great virtual team leader, but who is befuddled by "groupware" and "social networking platforms". Training will be necessary for virtual teams to succeed, and it is the HR and talent manager's imperative to identify the skills gaps and to ensure that training to close those gaps is made available.
Examples of Best Practices in Virtual-Team Training
- Sabre, Inc. hosts team-building sessions with virtual teams to develop a mission statement, to set team objectives and clarify roles, and to create a shared group identity.
- At Dow Chemical, virtual team members take courses on etiquette and meeting management for virtual teams.
- Rocketdyne uses information-sharing technologies such as virtual knowledge repositories for their extensive training for virtual teams.
- GlaxoSmithKline uses cultural awareness exercises to break down stereotypes, improve virtual team communication and to clarify role expectations.
Source: Rosen et al, 2006.
UNC professors Ben Rosen and Richard Blackburn conducted an in-depth study on the training needs for virtual teams and found that executives working on virtual teams needed training in the following:
- Leading a virtual team meeting
- Coaching and mentoring team members virtually
- Monitoring progress and taking corrective action
- Managing external relationships with local managers
- Evaluating and rewarding individual contributions to the team
A Model Virtual Team Training Program
Training Modules for Virtual Team Leaders
- Fitting the technology to the task
- Setting expectations, measuring and rewarding team contributions
- Coaching and mentoring virtual team members
- Modeling desired virtual team behaviors (responsiveness, using groupware to share information)
- Managing external relations (on-site managers, sponsors)
Training Modules for Virtual Team Members and Leaders
- Face-to-face teambuilding session before virtual team launch
- Establish team identity
- Create mission statement to establish team norms
- Build trust
- Mastering virtual team technology
- Use of groupware
- Teleconference and videoconference procedures
- Communication skills
- Electronic etiquette
- Cultural awareness
- Brainstorming electronically
- Decision making
- Team management
- Virtual meeting logistics (synchronizing schedules, setting
- Defining roles
- Resolving conflicts
- Meeting milestones
- Evaluating process and progress
- Virtual meeting logistics (synchronizing schedules, setting
Source: Rosen et al, 2006.
Virtual team members needed to develop skills in:
- Establishing trust and managing conflict among the team
- Demonstrating cultural sensitivity and communication
- Exhibiting positive team building practices
- Using communication technologies
- Selecting the appropriate technology to fit a task (Rosen et al, 2006)
Based on the outcome of their survey and additional research, Rosen and Blackburn offered a comprehensive prototype for virtual team training (see call-out on the previous page). The model reflects the best practices of successful virtual teams and can be used as a starting point for training in any organization seeking to implement or improve virtual teams.