By Dave Crisp
More discussion has surfaced recently about managing virtual teams and workers. Clearly it's a growing reality in many organizations. In many cases, it will have snuck up on us as more people are equipped with computers and communication software both at home and remote office locations. It poses some challenges.
A number of years ago this tended to mean one or two workers working the majority of their time from home or another off-site location (car, hotel room, temporary office). Sorting out best principles evolved, so now many organizations have explicit guidelines for this.
In a real sense, a leader might be in charge of a number of employees working remotely, which by definition was a virtual team, but the emphasis tended to be on rules for the employees. Measurement systems a leader might use to judge productivity tended to be secondary, but important. It was assumed leaders would keep in touch frequently as most seemed a bit skeptical anyway and could be counted on to want to keep close tabs on workers.
As time passed technology made most of us capable of working remotely at least part time with few special arrangements. It also enabled more people to tie into virtual meetings via various types of collaboration programs and online tools. The emphasis shifted away from remote workers as special cases that had to be monitored to an assumption entire teams might be assembled from workers who are located somewhere other than where the leader is or teams in one location being led by a leader located somewhere else. Technology enabled "somewhere else" to mean literally anywhere on the planet, so rules about attending weekly in-office meetings often no longer fit.
The literature filled with new concerns such as people working at home on off hours. Some unions are even bargaining for on-call premiums for anyone who carries a company cellphone, especially since these smartphones are small computers with email and more. But beyond that, leadership questions have been multiplying for more complex situations.
Some excellent guides exist now for leaders of true virtual teams, such as Jon Wagner’s third edition, just published with Russ Milland, The Building Effective Virtual and Remote Teams Handbook (note: although I haven’t met Jon as far as I recall, he’s a fellow member of Strategic Capability Network). How should leaders behave differently (or should they) if they rarely meet team members and conduct full group meetings and routine one-on-ones via technology? These guys have experience and have studied what works best, but can busy managers really implement 160 plus pages of advice?
Other ways of looking at similar concerns and some of the newer evolving technologies and methods that one could consider are captured by Kyle Lagunas, the HR Analyst at Software Advice in a recent article. In his blog post, he discusses the challenges of managing with an “open door” or a version of the much recommended “managing by walking around” when dealing with virtual teams.
The complete solution almost certainly hasn’t been written yet, nor have all the questions been discovered. It would be nice to think office politics can be overcome with effective processes, clearly set out, but human nature being what it is, what happens when a group of employees conspire to rid themselves of an unwanted virtual leader or when individuals plot to become the favorite or divert the project or more?
With a growing emphasis discussed in earlier HR Strategy posts about the need for managers to learn to confront each other and argue constructively to get disagreements out in the open, the chances for misunderstandings, shunning of people we don’t find congenial or co-operative and all those other natural, but naturally disruptive, behaviors would seem to find greater latitude to cause trouble or at least tremendous inefficiency and ineffectiveness.
Maybe we need a few realistic novels or screenplays about the pitfalls, dangers and solutions as well as sound advice that not everyone will have the time or skill to implement. I’m sure there’s also a huge opportunity for some comedy in all this – “The (Virtual) Office” perhaps.
Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.balance-and-results.com.