Today, in many organizations, a significant amount of work is done virtually. Even in the most provincial of firms, it is rare to find all team members in a single location. Companies frequently choose people from across various global locations to work virtually in an effort to leverage expertise, as well as to save both time and money. With the advent of worldwide crises and events like global pandemics, the context of work is accelerating even more rapidly.
The structure of global business is moving away from traditional hierarchical multinational enterprises to more flexible international arrangements. It has been suggested that organizations will become more flexible, as well as learning and innovation-oriented, and will be realized through the expansion of global virtual teams (GVTs). These multicultural virtual teams provide diverse skill sets, and members’ diverse proficiencies can be leveraged to improve organizational outcomes. As a result, organizing work in GVTs has become the modus operandi. Team members are globally dispersed and heterogeneous across multiple dimensions. Global virtual teams span multiple countries, time zones, cultures, and languages – and they often rely on communication technology rather than face-to-face interaction. GVTs can be seen as catalysts for new forms of organizing, or perhaps even as organizational forms in themselves, changing traditional ideas about organizational boundaries.
The business justification for virtual teams is strong: they leverage expertise and vertical integration across the organization to make resources readily available, as well as increase the overall speed and agility of the organization. In addition, virtual teams draw talent quickly from various functions, locations and cultures. They reduce the disruption to people’s lives because travel becomes less of a necessity and team members can both broaden and deepen their perspectives (and their careers) by working across boundaries and borders on a variety of projects and tasks.
As a leader of virtual teams, your main goal should be to leverage your human capital to its utmost – as quickly as possible.
Beware: How you choose to manage this process may be the difference between success and failure
Despite the potential advantages of creating virtual teams, a dispersed work environment will fundamentally change how your teams operate and will add to the overall complexity of the landscape. Virtual teams are more complex than traditional teams for two key reasons:
- They cross boundaries related to time, distance (geography), culture and/or function
- They communicate and collaborate using technology with less capacity to build trust
Working across boundaries and borders complicates working relationships because differences in time zones, language, culture and access to technology can inhibit effective communication. In addition, integration of work methods, organizational or functional cultures, technologies and goals can also make communication and collaboration far more challenging than that of the traditional team.
Even though you may have the technological capability to work across boundaries and borders, the fact remains that in order to leverage virtual teams you will need different competencies and practices in order to be successful. Your success will depend heavily on developing skills that facilitate working effectively virtually.
Understanding how to lead and/or work on a virtual team is necessary in today’s global marketplace. While striving to develop teams that leverage technology to create competitive advantage, it is important for you to realize that it is not enough to understand that technology or national culture affects teamwork; you and your teams need tools, techniques and decision-making strategies that work in unique, dispersed environments.
As a leader in a virtual environment, you will need an additional level of support because you must be able to develop:
- Training, travel and technology budgets that enable virtual team success
- Virtual team processes and policies that support the unique, virtual environment your teams work in
- A knowledge management repository that eliminates duplicative efforts, thereby saving time and money
- Comprehensive communication plans that facilitate openness and trust across cultures and time zones
- Empowerment guidelines for team members to enable autonomy and personal accountability, while establishing boundaries
- Customer education packages to facilitate customer understanding and support for your virtual teams
These components of preparation for launching virtual teams are critical because your virtual teams need specific things to succeed, such as:
- CXO level support for virtual work environments
- Ability to receive the critical training, travel and technology necessary to develop and function as a successful dispersed team
- High levels of autonomy to do their jobs
- Standardized team initiation processes
- Structured communication plans
- Standardized electronic communication and collaboration technologies
- Empowerment guidelines
- Customer education plans
Creating competitive advantage in global environments means constantly reshaping your organization to maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses. Virtual teams are an excellent way to do both – if the organization is committed to the cultural change and prepared to support the unique requirements of the virtual team. Over the next several weeks, we will explore the critical success factors that drive the probability of a virtual team’s success:
- Human resource policies
- Training, education and team development
- Organizational culture
- National culture
- Standardized organizational and team processes
- Leadership support
- Leader and team member competencies
Is your organization committed to the cultural change necessary to facilitate Virtual Success?
Please engage the discussion and let us know how your organization supports virtual teams. Always feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check back soon for the next installment of Leadership Across Boundaries and Borders, when we will discuss how and why human resource policies are important to virtual team success.