News & Insights

Pains and Productivity of Virtual Teams

I recently spent 6 months managing a virtual team with people all over the globe.  Quickly getting into the very bad habit of sitting in an office, talking into a telephone, for 12 hours a day. It changed the way I work, and it reminded me of some of the coaching I used to give to junior managers about how to run meetings.  So I have some observations that I thought I’d share.

With the exception of the British, people in most European countries have a reasonable work-life balance.  They get the work done, but on their terms.  In contrast, I found that some Americans would accept meeting invitations at all times of the day or night.  Once or twice, as a favour to me, I know that people will attend meetings while on vacation, or on their way to the baby crèche.  However, I became careful with my timing as I didn’t want to push my luck. 

To cover mistakes or gaps in meetings we often use humour.   So, for example, I tend to crack a joke during meetings or share some banter when waiting for people to join.  These attempts at humour were not received well by some people from the Far East.  It’s not that they are sour, just that they didn’t appreciate throw-away comments.  I became very serious-sounding – for most of the time.

Relationships within the client are already well established; often going back years.  As interims we start an assignment as guests at the table.  So some behaviours can seem quite a surprise to the newcomer.  Aggression was an example of this.  On a number of occasions I was taken aback by very sharp exchanges of views on the line.  Aggression is hard to handle, because the team cannot pick-up on non-verbal cues while on the phone to anticipate or de-fuse it.  On the positive side, aggression often got disputes resolved quickly without dancing around handbags.  So although this was my virtual team, to some people it was family – and that is how they behaved.

My big fear was that key participants would find my meetings tedious or non-productive, and would start skipping calls.  This would be terminal.  Anyone dialing-in during their early morning or late evening wants a slick, well-prepared meeting with defined objectives.  We all know how to do this.  I found that I was going into my meetings having pre-cooked much of my content.  Even to the extent that I would rehearse the start of some sentences; so I would never say:  “No, but ..”  instead I used “Yes, and …”.  We all know how to do these things, but meeting with people who we can’t see needs a focus on process and content.

There are some major benefits to running meetings on-line.  These come from the technology.  For example: many of the calls were with people from outside our immediate team.  So before these calls we always opened an on-line text messaging session, but limited to the core team.  Incredibly useful – like passing notes at the back of a classroom.

Now that I’ve had an assignment which was almost entirely virtual, I do have one major worry about on-line meetings.  My concern is that they are less than useless for problem solving. 

Yes, there is technology out there which is meant to enable problem solving by virtual on-line teams.  So I’ve shared virtual whiteboards, and I once worked with a Fintech entrepreneur who insisted on us doing mind-maps together on-line  (it didn’t work).  My view is that nothing beats a meeting room with a white board for resolving a knotty problem, or when designing a solution.  There’s just something about being there. 

With thanks to Alan Greenwood for another interesting insight into Interim



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News posted: 14/07/2014 by Alan Greenwood

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