8.5. Virtual PM

Managing a team of people who work side-by-side in the same office is difficult enough. But what about managing a virtual team—that is, a team whose members are dispersed at multiple geographical locations? In the worldwide marketplace, such teams are essential. Deborah L. Duarte and Nancy Tennant Snyder explain the trend in their helpful workbook, Mastering Virtual Teams:

Understanding how to work in or lead a virtual team is now a fundamental requirement for people in many organizations…. The fact is that leading a virtual team is not like leading a traditional team. People who lead and work on virtual teams need to have special skills, including an understanding of human dynamics and performance without the benefit of normal social cues, knowledge of how to manage across functional areas and national cultures, skill in managing their careers and others without the benefit of face-to-face interactions, and the ability to use leverage and electronic communication technology as their primary means of communicating and collaborating. (Duarte & Tennant Snyder, 2006, p. 4)

When properly managed, collaboration over large distances can generate serious advantages. For one thing, the diversity of team members as per Siebdrat et al. (2009) “exposes members to heterogeneous sources of work experience, feedback, and networking opportunities.” At the same time, the team’s diversity enhances the “overall problem-solving capacity of the group by bringing more vantage points to bear on a particular project” (Siebdrat et al.,  2009, p. 65). Often, engaging with stakeholders via email allows for more intimacy and understanding than face-to-face conversations, which, depending on the personality types involved, can sometimes be awkward or ineffective.

However, research consistently underscores the difficulties in getting a dispersed team to work effectively. In a widely cited study of 70 virtual teams, Vijay Govindarajan and Anil K. Gupta (2001) found that “only 18% considered their performance ‘highly successful’ and the remaining 82% fell short of their intended goals. In fact, fully one-third of the teams … rated their performance as largely unsuccessful”. Furthermore, research has consistently shown that virtual team members are “overwhelmingly unsatisfied” with the technology available for virtual communication and do not view it “as an adequate substitute for face-to-face communication” (Purvanova, 2014).

Given these challenges, what’s a virtual team manager to do? It helps to be realistic about the barriers to collaboration that arise when your team is scattered around the office park or around the globe.

The Perils of Virtual Distance

Physical distance—the actual space between team members—can impose all sorts of difficulties. Most studies have shown that teams who are located in the same space, where members can build personal, collaborative relationships with one another, are usually more effective than teams that are dispersed across multiple geographical locations.

Potential issues include difficulties in communication and coordination, reduced trust, and an increased inability to establish a common ground…. Distance also brings with it other issues, such as team members having to negotiate multiple time zones and requiring them to reorganize their work days to accommodate others’ schedules. In such situations, frustration and confusion can ensue, especially if coworkers are regularly unavailable for discussion or clarification of task-related issues. (Siebdrat, et. al., 2009, p. 64)

Even dispersing teams on multiple floors of the same building can decrease the team’s overall effectiveness, in part because team members “underestimate the barriers to collaboration deriving from, for instance, having to climb a flight of stairs to meet a teammate face-to-face.” Team members end up behaving as if they were scattered across the globe. As one team leader at a software company noted, teams spread out within the same building tend to “use electronic communication technologies such as e-mail, telephone, and voicemail just as much as globally dispersed teams do” (Siebdrat, et. al., 2009, p. 64).

Communication options like video conferences, text messages, and email can do wonders to bridge the gap. But you do need to make sure your communication technology is working seamlessly. Studies show that operational glitches (such as failed Skype connections or thoughtlessly worded emails) can contribute to a pernicious sense of distance between team members. Karen Sobel-Lojeski and Richard Reilly coined the term virtual distance to refer to the “psychological distance created between people by an over-reliance on electronic communications” (2008, xxii). Generally speaking, it is tough to build a team solely through electronic communication. That’s why it’s helpful to meet face-to-face occasionally. A visit from a project manager once a year or once a quarter can do wonders to nurture relationships among all team members and keep everyone engaged and focused on project success.

In their book Uniting the Virtual Workforce, Sobel-Lojeski and Reilly document some “staggering effects” of virtual distance:

  • 50% decline in project success (on-time, on-budget delivery).
  • 90% drop in innovation effectiveness.
  • 80% plummet in work satisfaction.
  • 83% fall off in trust.
  • 65% decrease in role and goal clarity.
  • 50% decline in leader effectiveness (2008, xxii).

The Special Role of Trust in a Virtual PM

So, what’s the secret to making virtual teams work for you? We’ve already discussed the importance of building trust on any team. But on virtual teams, building trust is a special concern. Erin Meyer describes the situation like this: “Trust takes on a whole new meaning in virtual teams. When you meet your workmates by the water cooler or photocopier every day, you know instinctively who you can and cannot trust. In a geographically distributed team, trust is measured almost exclusively in terms of reliability” (Meyer, 2010).

All sorts of problems can erode a sense of reliability on a virtual team, but most of them come down to a failure to communicate. Sometimes the problem is an actual, technical inability to communicate (for example, because of unreliable cell phone service at a remote factory); sometimes the problem is related to scheduling (for example, a manager in Japan being forced to hold phone meetings at midnight with colleagues in North America); and sometimes the problem is simply a failure to understand a message once it is received. Whatever the cause, communication failures have a way of eroding trust among team members as they begin to see each other as unreliable.

As illustrated in Figure 8.1, communicating clearly will lead your team members to perceive you as a reliable person, which will then encourage them to trust you.


Clear communication benefits
Figure 8.1: The benefits of clear communication

Leigh Thompson, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, offers a number of practical suggestions for improving virtual teamwork, including the following:

  • Verify that your communication technology works reliably, and that team members know how to use it.
  • Take a few minutes before each virtual meeting to share some personal news, so that team members can get to know each other.
  • Use video conferencing whenever possible, so everyone can see each other. The video image can go a long way toward humanizing your counterparts in distant locales. If video conferencing is not an option, try at least to keep a picture of the person you’re talking to visible, perhaps on your computer. Studies have shown that even a thumbnail image can vastly improve your ability to reach an agreement with a remote team member. (Thompson, 2015)


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