Have we reached an age where we can all work together – virtually?
Once upon a time we had offices.
We all went to our office every day to work with others and keep business going.
It seemed like the best way to work.
And so an opinion was born that “For every serious business, people need to go to an office to work together.”
With the onset of the new millennium, such beliefs are being challenged. Business leaders have now started questioning the need for a common workplace. Today an “office” is fast-becoming a 20th century concept that actually comes in the way of the best use of individual talent, time and energy. Instead, the times we are living in are the age of virtual teams, virtual workplaces along with the flexibility & ease of working that goes with them.
A virtual team consists of individuals coming together as a group irrespective of the boundaries of cultures, countries, languages and ethnicities for a common purpose. In the modern business world, the virtual team is a group of ‘geographically and organizationally dispersed’ employees who are brought together in order to perform a task. Generally, these teams are formed to achieve a specific objective such as the development of a new product or problem-solving where an organization forms the virtual team to end a crisis.
While the proliferation of information & communication technologies has been instrumental in enabling virtualization, moving it forward will take more than the best technology. In a world where a web designer in Milan, Italy, works with a software architect and ace software developers in Chicago, USA and Hyderabad, India to deliver a project for a company housed in Dubai, UAE, organizations are going beyond video-conferencing, social media and Skype to find ways to support their virtual teams.
So what does it take to take your team virtual?
- Treat virtual differently: The rules of a face-to-face world don’t hold when managing a virtual team. Virtual teams have different set of challenges – building trust, defining accountabilities and driving results with hardly any face-to-face interaction – and need different processes. Organisations that walk the virtual road need to outline clear policies & processes on how to manage idea generation & sharing, development, and project closure while being located remotely.
- Build social relationships: For a geographically dispersed workforce, interaction is rare and can result in isolation and weaker social links between team-mates. Socially focused activities aimed at strengthening inter-personal bonds bring human connect – that make it easier to ride through conflict. And yes, social even via electronic communication works too!
- Change individual mindsets: Remote teams often work from homes or semi-formal virtual offices and yet need to conduct business as usual. The discipline and professionalism of a formal workplace needs to translate into a routine for virtual meetings, rules for communication & interaction and even pre-decided workflow patterns like the “follow the sun” schedule that makes it possible to reduce the cycle time of key projects.
- Cultivate ‘one-world’ thinking: Teams that collaborate from different corners of the world can speak different languages, have different time zones & local holidays and can follow very different customs & traditions. A virtual team needs to build performance on a foundation of cultural acceptance and sensitization. Often the team develops a shared universal language and draws on a vocabulary that truly cuts across boundaries.
The Road Ahead
Looking to the future, the global economy is bound to transform the way business is done, leading to an increase in prevalence of the virtual teams. Virtual teams can be formed within any industry segment – be it information technology, manufacturing, construction, automobiles, aviation, space, healthcare or even non-profits. Industry players like Whirlpool, British Petroleum, Hewlett Packard, and Microsoft are some examples of corporations who are benefiting from the capabilities of virtual teams.
As they support their virtual teams with everything from the development of communication technologies to building trust and collaboration among individuals in a global team, they have begun to tap into the diversified talent of the hand-picked virtual teams across the globe to become more competitive. They are building a source of advantage and exploring the new dynamics of productivity – hopefully in a world where the rules of “how people work” have become less important that “what they do”!