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Virtual Teams

Recent studies show significant productivity increases from remote working. And there is a growing ability and opportunities to work remotely and still relate to others. Some jobs, however, cannot be made remote. These include on-site manufacturing, distribution, and most server jobs that have face-to-face customer contact. Also, not all people enjoy working remotely, and some lack the skills or the technology to be effective. To the extent that remote working can be implemented, there are several benefits to individuals and organizations. Expenses are reduced by not commuting to work and not traveling for business meetings. These savings are significant. For individuals, the savings may total several thousand dollars after tax from the reduced use of vehicles or other transportation and associated costs. Also, living in less expensive areas can reduce living expenses for individuals. Organizations can save even more. Reduced office space, rents, and lower utility and insurance expenses are just a few examples. There is also less risk to employees by not traveling for business. This is especially true for international travel. Another significant advantage is the dramatic reduction of an organizations carbon footprint to support corporate sustainability initiatives. Some teams are 100% remote and others are mixed, with both in-office employees and remote workers. The strategies for working remotely are the same except and depends on universal access to the same information and resources for all participants.

Organizations can also take advantage of global talent both from a skill variety perspective as well as through lower labor costs. In some situations, an organization may be able to pay more for certain talent because other employment costs (e.g., rent, travel, and related expenses) are lower. Workforce flexibility is increased because a remote workforce can be easily scaled. Employee retention in some situations may be higher if a remote workforce has lower work-related expenses and more personal time. Employees can work for organizations located in countries or locations where they would not normally be able to live. Global teams can be organized to service customers around the clock. This reduces the lead times or service levels for handling customer inquiries and to do other work. Productivity will be higher, in part, because travel time is reduced. There are also fewer non-productive meetings, and side conversations are reduced significantly.

There are also disadvantages associated with remote working. First, there is the potential for disconnection from other employees. This is especially applicable for people that have a work style requiring high social interaction. Second, distractions may reduce productivity if a home office is not set up to minimize interruptions. Third, the technology may not be suitable relative to hardware and software performance, or telecommunications may not be efficient. Finally, it may be difficult to separate work time from personal time. These situations contribute to employee burnout.

Prior to forming a virtual project team, there are several important considerations: building trust, maintaining connections between team members, managing work, and eliminating barriers for doing remote work. It is important to build trust between remote workers and central teams through policies, procedures, and work standardization. Policies and procedures must be documented for the teams to work together. Remote and central teams need to understand their roles and responsibilities as well as the team’s goals. Consistency is very important for any team, and especially so for remote teams. Consistency is enhanced by meeting regularly, complete with agendas and other team facilitation tools and methods. It requires that each team member follow the team’s agreed-upon rules for working. In fact, many remote teams have an informal agreement on how to work together.

An agreement describes how the team will communicate and keep promises to finish work that is in scope and agreed upon in advance. This approach will also be useful when new team members onboard. The team leader should maintain transparency between the members to ensure equal contributions by all. This means work should be evenly divided based on skills and the team agreements. Information should also be shared equally within the team, except when it is personal and private. This does not imply that team members would not be recognized when they go above and beyond their expected contributions, rather that the recognition criteria should always be equally applied to everyone in similar circumstances. Team members may also have expertise or certain skills that enable them to lead team projects. More experienced team members should be encouraged to coach new team members.

Remote teams should be supported with technology to interact with the global IT ecosystem. Remote client computers and Internet speeds are important considerations. Internet speeds need to match the software applications being remotely accessed. There needs to be enough bandwidth in the broadband connection, and phone, video conferencing software, printers, and other peripherals are necessary to enable efficient work. Remote technology deployment strategies vary. An organization could supply the hardware, software, and peripherals at an employee’s home office or enable an employee to use low-cost equipment, or the employee may purchase their own equipment and be reimbursed later. The same would be true for contractors. Policies, procedures, and processes must be in place to govern remote work to ensure devices are properly serviced and secured as well as available for work.

Remote or virtual teams usually have members in different countries and time zones. Team effectiveness is increased if the team is culturally aware. One method to increase awareness is to learn about each team member’s culture. Different cultures have differing perspectives of communication, work, and other factors important for team effectiveness. It is recommended to study cultural etiquette in advance of the first team meeting to modify behavioral styles. An example is speech (e.g., using slang or speaking versus being silent). These behaviors matter in most cultures. It is also important to listen to the team. Who is speaking more versus members who are silent? Relative to logistics, remote and especially global teams should schedule meetings considering the different time zones, country-specific holidays, and team members’ personal commitments. It may be useful to schedule meetings at different times to allow members to share the inconvenience of meeting either late or early in the day.

Technology has enabled easy video conferencing and information transfer around the world, and international organizations routinely use such technology to do work. In the past, entire products or services were offshored and either served local, in-country markets or shipped complete solutions outside a country. To an extent, technology leveled the cultural differences within teams relative to how they do work for the organization. Effective project management has never been more important because team members may never meet in person. And although they do meet virtually, they will move to other projects and may not work together for months or years. The team maturation model that was discussed in Chapter 2 has been modified through corporate initiatives, communications, and policies that promote rapid team formation and efficient work to achieve goals. The project management basics, however, remain the same, albeit with modifications for virtualization.

Project management is an integrated set of activities that require effective planning and execution of interrelated actions. These activities ensure projects achieve their goals on schedule. Project management activities include leading a team and ensuring its project remains on schedule, within budget, and meets goals and their deliverables. An improvement team is formed around a project charter supported with financial and operational justifications and focused (or scoped) around a defined process having a starting point and an ending point. The business case ensures the project is strategically aligned. The charter will have identified the initial team members, at least by organizational function, based on the project’s scope. The supplier-input-process-output-customer (SIPOC) map, such as was shown in Figures 3.11 and 9.6, is particularly useful for helping identify a project’s team members. Team members should be selected across the process including those doing the work and people receiving materials or information. Team members should also have the requisite skills and knowledge to help the team drive toward the root causes of a process and develop solutions. The team leader will expand on this list with stakeholders to finalize the project team and obtain time commitments based on their expected roles and responsibilities.

Team management is important for successful project execution. Table 12.1 lists metrics that are effective for evaluating team performance.

TABLE 12.1

Metrics for Managing Projects

Metric

1. Working days used versus days allocated

2. Work tasks to be completed within 24 hours

3. Work tasks starting in the next 10 days

4. Work tasks in progress

5. Work tasks completed

6. Work task resources consumed

7. Work tasks started late

8. Work tasks over budget

9. Project expenses to budget

10. Work tasks “crashed” to reduce project time

The project leader balances time and resources, including expenses, to achieve goals and their deliverables. Deliverables are features or functions associated with a product, service, or supporting process. They consist of work tasks, which are logically grouped based on sequence and similarity into milestones. When the work tasks are complete, then the deliverables are complete. When all the deliverables of a milestone are complete, then the milestone is completed. Stakeholder reviews are conducted at project milestones. When the milestones are complete, the project goals are complete. Each deliverable has one to several work tasks that need to be completed on schedule using predetermined resources. The metrics in Table 12.1 are focused on measuring work according to schedule and resource usage. Work tasks are often interrelated. Some cannot be started before others, and sequence relationships are important to measure relative to when tasks begin and end. The metrics in Table 12.1 measure work task adherence to schedule. The list is redundant, and some teams will use some but not all the metrics. There are also others specific to different industries. The last metric in Table 12.1, “Work tasks that can be crashed to reduce expected completion time,” refers to adding resources to critical tasks to do them more quickly to reach project completion. This topic will be discussed later in this chapter.

Prior to forming a team, an organization needs to ask the question, “Is a team really needed to investigate and execute this project?” Not every project requires a project team. If a project is small in scope or its solution is obvious, a formal team is not necessary. In contrast, a formal team is needed to execute a complex project that requires different stakeholders,

Virtual Teams

393

FIGURE 12.1

Developing virtual teams.

resources, a nd s kills. A p roject t earn s hould a Iso n ot b e f ormed, n or should a p roject be formally chartered, if there is no clear management directive to initiate the project, such as a lack of alignment with organizational strategy, a w eak problem statement, ambiguous objectives, ora lack of resources and other required support. Figure 12.1 summarizes this discussion.

Once a project team is formed, issues may arise that need to be resolved. Every team may face such problems to one degree or another. A project manager should be aware of these potential issues and develop plans to mitigate their impact on the project’s schedule and cost. Figure 12.1 shows the four categories of external environment, facilitation tools, and team evolution, a nd t earn m ember p erceptions. a ее xternal e nvironment impacts project prioritization and available resources. A project charter is the best way to internally prioritize and obtain resources from stakeholders. R esources i nclude p eople w ho w ork i n t he p rocess, a ccess t о information, a nd a b udget. dee xternal e nvironment та у p ose s everal project risks, including competitive threats, technological and regulatory barriers, and adverse economic conditions. Competitive threats include the loss or gain of major customers, products, or services. Technological threats occur if a project relies on new or major improvement in technology. Regulatory and economic risks occur if an organization is not well positioned relative to competitors to meet new or updated regulations or to survive adverse economic conditions of various types, including international economic factors. External threats to a project vary by industry and organization.

Facilitation is also critical to team performance, especially if the team is highly diverse. Diversity is an important success factor for teams because it provides different perspectives for root-cause analysis and solutions. But diversity may result in disagreements as to how to proceed with project work. These disagreements must be facilitated to ensure project goals and schedule are met. Facilitation does not need to be complicated, and it is always helpful. As an example, using a meeting agenda, ensuring team members are heard and feel free to contribute their ideas, outlining clear roles and responsibilities on the team, and sending out meeting minutes and action items will ensure meetings are efficient. In contrast, if team members are homogeneous and agree on actions without discussion, it is more likely that wrong actions will be pursued. This is groupthink, and it contributes to dysfunctional behaviors because alternative and optimum solutions are often missed.

The opposite of groupthink is diversity in thought and is the preferred methods of working problems and solutions. There are several systems that measure personal perceptions of work. These show different people solve problems from different perspectives. One evaluation technique is the Meyers-Briggs method, which ranks people along four dimensions. The first is introversion versus extroversion. The second is sensing versus intuitive. The third is thinking versus feeling. The fourth is judgmental versus perceptive. These are organized into sixteen discrete categories. A person may be highly introverted or highly extroverted, or somewhere between these extremes. Without proper facilitation, the extroverts in a team will dominate conversations. This reduces contributions from introverted team members. A facilitation method to avoid this issue is to ask each person if they would like to contribute an idea to the team’s conversation. This ensures everyone has a chance to contribute to meetings. Another Meyers-Briggs dimension is sensing versus intuitive. Individuals who naturally evaluate a problem sequentially are sensing types, whereas intuitive personalities will seek a solution without necessarily following a sequential process. To an intuitive personality, the sensing personality may seem to move too slowly when collecting the necessary facts and information to objectively investigate a problem. In contrast, to the sensing personality, the intuitive type may attempt to move through a root-cause analysis without factual justification. In these situations, the facilitation would involve following a problem-solving methodology that requires a sequential approach. The team would agree on the data collection plan and, once analyzed, decisions will be made based on the analytical results. Later in a project, the strength of the intuitive personalities will come into play by envisioning different solutions and alternatives, whereas sensing types may continue to focus on data collection and analysis. Team members may disagree on how best to proceed with work because of different perceptions; without facilitation, this will cause conflict.

The last category in Figure 12.1 is team evolution. Project teams move through four stages as they mature into a high-performance team. This model was discussed in Chapter 2. Recall that the maturation stages were forming, storming, norming, and performing. In the forming stage, team members develop initial impressions. Not much serious discussion of project objectives occurs during this stage. As the team starts to discuss the project’s goals and deliverables and how to achieve them, disagreements may occur without facilitation. If the team is facilitated effectively, it can quickly pass through the storming stage to develop a consensus of how to work through the project’s deliverables. Over time, as the team performs its roles and responsibilities and completes milestones on schedule, mutual trust increases and the team enters the performing stage.

There are positive and negative sources for team conflict. Conflict by itself is a necessary precursor to the investigation of a project’s problem because it is based on diversity of thought. It is based on differences in the group’s cultural values and psychological perceptions, differences in goals and expectations based on cultural perceptions and lack of understanding of cross-cultural norms. Positive effects from conflict are increased solution alternatives once understanding is achieved through group facilitation, communication is increased through awareness of cultural and psychological differences and increased motivation within the team occurs because of group goal alignment. Facilitation will eliminate or reduce stress due to misconceptions caused by different cultural expectations. This will improve solution alternatives and enhance agreement on problem statements and data interpretation. The result will be more effective communication, and higher morale. Facilitation will help a team achieve project milestones on schedule. Cultural differences also necessitate modifications to how teams are formed and managed in different regions of the world. First, the teams are virtual, and its members are scattered around the world. They must quickly move through the maturation stages to be effective, and only facilitation can do this.

A checklist is useful for ensuring facilitation of virtual teams. The list reflects some of the information from the team’s chapter and includes clear roles and responsibilities including the team leader, the facilitator, team members, ad hoc technical experts, a timekeeper, and a note taker, the project goals and deliverables and other relevant information. A SIPOC should also be created to confirm the team’s scope or work. The SIPOC’s input and output boundaries should be aligned with the project’s problem statement, goals and their deliverables or milestones. The team should include members having diverse viewpoints, perspectives, and skills. These people should be part of the process in scope. Outside assistance and resources should be requested when needed. The team should collect and analyze data to answer project questions in a fact-based manner and to drive solutions based on fact rather than only on team consensus. Several of the project management models discussed in earlier chapters provide a structured framework.

 
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