ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - November 2001


Issue Highlight — Actions That Might Matter
In Actions That Might Matter, Peter Block challenges us to rethink our well-intended and often automatic urge during difficult times to just "Do Something!" Think instead, he asks, about authentic change, shifting consciousness, relationships, and reconciliation.

Virtually Amazing
A Look at Virtual Teams: Learning to Trust and Taking Virtual Teams to the Next Level

The future of teamwork has boundless possibilities, and a few challenges. And the virtual world in which many of these possibilities exist presents very real, concrete obstacles. From building trust electronically and connecting individually and globally, to interpreting non-verbal communication in a faceless environment, the following story offers ways to survive in the new team world. Experts offer insights and tips to non-traditional team members and share their ideas of what teams and work will look like in the years ahead.

Teams aren’t what they used to be. Today’s teams are global. Today’s teams might meet once a month or once a year, instead of once a week. Today’s team members often don’t know each other beyond a voice on the other end of a phone line or a few paragraphs in an e-mail message. Today’s managers sometimes have no way of making sure that people are really doing what they’re supposed to be doing, or if they’re “really” going to have that report done when they say they will. Global, virtual teams — which cooperate through phones and computers — are a necessity of the modern world. They’re flexible. They’re powerful. They’re even environmentally friendly. But they have brought a whole host of new challenges with them.

According to Nancy Ashworth, a management of change consultant with Hewlett-Packard who has been working with virtual teams for 14 years, foremost among these challenges is trust.

“When you’re working virtually, there are so many more ways that things can go wrong,” Ashworth says.

“I don’t think that virtual teaming can be effective if the team members are in an organization that doesn’t have a high level of trust.” This problem, she adds, stems from the different ways in which virtual teams interact as opposed to traditional teams.

“It’s very difficult to feel connected to a person you’ve not yet met,” she says, emphasizing the fact that in normal interaction, team members have time to get to know each other over the water cooler. In virtual teams, this “getting to know you” time is missing. Because virtual communication is seldom casual, team members don’t know anything about each other’s lives: no information, no bond. No bond, no trust. No trust... well, that’s the problem.

“In our company, if we make a phone call and voice mail picks up, we make the assumption that that person is not available because they’re doing what they need to be doing,” she says. “But other places, if you aren’t in your office when people come by, they might make some negative assumptions.”

Getting to Know Someone Electronically
For virtual teams, this problem is magnified. When there is no local office for people to come to, unanswered phones or late-to-respond e-mail messages are even easier to misinterpret.

Shauna Wilson, president of Amazon Consulting, Inc., agrees. “We seem to think that we need to have the person right next to us to be able to build trust,” she says, adding that visual cues such as body language, facial expressions, and gestures go a long way to familiarize people with each other in person. “As we start building these virtual teams, we’ll have to replace those things.”

How do you replace body language and other face-to-face cues? Both Wilson and Ashworth offer the same solution: questions, questions, questions. Ashworth has developed what she calls the “Instant Trust Inventory” to get people to find out about each other’s non-work lives. Wilson advocates the same approach.

“What I’m trying to do is devise questions where they can get to a sense of commonality much faster,” she says.

Questions and answers begin a dialogue. The tendency for virtual teams is to communicate only when business is at hand, not just to chat. Traditional teams, which share the same workspace, chat all the time. In short, small talk is OK. In fact, though it sometimes seems unprofessional to talk about your high school days or your child’s “Little League” games on the clock, it’s a genuine way for people to learn about each other — and in turn to trust them, making teaming more effective.

As for the rest, Ashworth advocates constant communication. “You need to over-communicate, if anything. You don’t want to make any assumptions. You don’t want to think that no news is good news.”

“You verify,” Wilson agrees. “You don’t assume as much.”

Over-communicating means checking in from time to time, not just when a project is due. It means making sure that your message, in e-mail or over the phone, is clear and leaves nothing to assumption. One problem with e-mail in particular, says Wilson, is that in addition to not having visual cues, you don’t even have auditory cues that you might get over the phone — tone of voice, chuckles, and the “hmmm” sounds of uncertainty. In cold type, it’s difficult to tell if someone is kidding or is serious. Misunderstandings are common. To fill the gap, she suggests, use emoticons — e-mail emotional cues like the ever-popular smiley-face “:)”.

Despite the challenges, both Ashworth and Wilson feel that virtual teaming is the way of the future. In addition to being necessary in a global economy, virtual teams have real advantages over traditional ones.

“I think that you can do anything that you now do face-to-face, and I think that you’re going to able to do it better virtually,” says Wilson. “Virtual teams empower the team member to make decisions where, in face-to-face meetings, the senior manager would be making them. When you move decision making to the people who are doing the work, it provides much better answers.”

Also, with a global pool of workers to draw from when distance is not a factor, teams have access to the best talent. And as a bonus, the “leveling” effects of cyberspace provide access to talent that is often masked in face-to-face meetings.

“Learning styles have changed totally,” says Wilson, referring to the way that meetings are usually dominated by extroverts. “It’s the quiet people who are going to rule in the virtual world. Those are the people we haven’t heard from yet.”

If learning styles have changed or are changing, then the need for new rules — and better definitions of roles — becomes larger.

Virtual teams are less hierarchical, so it needs to be clearer what each member’s responsibilities are. As for management, Ashworth calls for a different type: less rigid and less domineering. In addition, leaders need to keep the team’s goals firmly in mind. A common goal — clearly defined but not bullied into effect — is essential for globally dispersed teams.

It’s a new way of doing business. “If someone is not used to working in isolation or doing a lot of things on their own, they very quickly lose a lot of steam,” Ashworth says. The key to maintaining motivation and focus is a clear objective. This, again, comes from constant communication and trust that everyone will do their part.

Taking Virtual Teams to the Next Level
Although most virtual teams communicate by phone and e-mail, Wilson is trying to take virtual teaming to the next level: total virtual working environments with shared databases.

“You need to redirect communication into a virtual office where you have a ‘file cabinet’ with shared files, so that you don’t have several different versions out there that you have to keep track of,” Wilson says. Many companies spend too much time playing phone tag, trying to return messages, and navigating a labyrinth of one-to-one communications. Wilson sees total centralization as the ideal, with workers pulling information from the same working documents as everyone else — which team members would electronically check in and check out — just like file management in a real office.

“You’d have a discussion board that would eliminate one-on-one e-mail,” she says. “Each time something is updated, it would send you a message to notify you that there’s been a change on something you’ve been watching.” The ideal virtual office (like’s “communities”) would have all of the common resources of a traditional office — job boards, project calendars, and common to-do lists.

With the new communication and responsibility paradigm that Ashworth and Wilson advocate — over- rather than under-communication, shared responsibility, and a clear, common goal — this type of fully virtual working environment becomes a real possibility. Fewer people would need to commute. Rush hour would be less rushed. Talent could be drawn from all corners of the globe.

With fewer and fewer people traveling to office jobs, Wilson sees an anecdotal change on the horizon, as well. “Since people will be able to live where they want to and work from home, it will bring community back to the neighborhood,” she says. “Coffeehouse revenues will skyrocket.”

November 2001 News for a Change Homepage

 In This Issue...
Global Quality from Johnsonville, WI, to Durban, South Africa, with Jennifer James
The Drugs Are
in the Mail

Virtually Amazing
Why Can’t We All Just Get Along
What Did You Just Say?

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change
Brief Cases

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