One of my colleagues T.H Ong came up with this phrase in a workshop in Hong Kong to coincide with the launch of “Making the Matrix Work”, recently: “Don’t confuse virtual team spirit with virtual team structure”.
We had been working with clients from the finance industry to define where we really needed teamwork (highly interdependent synchronous work towards a truly collaborative goal) in global virtual teams, and where a looser ‘hub and spoke’ group structure was sufficient. (Groups are about the coordination of multiple individuals’ efforts).
Groups are much easier to run internationally as they don’t require synchronous (same time, if not same place) working. As a result global groups are easier to manage across time zones and through easy to organise one to one communication. True global virtual teams are much harder to run. Just try scheduling a convenient time for a global conference call – there isn’t one! Someone will always be inconvenienced and synchronising diaries to meet at at short notice is almost impossible.
A common objection to not working as a loosely connected group of individuals is that people miss the feeling of team spirit that working closely together can bring. Hence TH’s comment, “group working is about structure not spirit2.
There may be specific areas where global groups need to come together to create a sense of community and share learning, but this does not mean they need to come together to get their work done. This approach can, by contrast, lead to boring and irrelevant meetings and unnecessary cooperation and communication.
Instead focus the infrequent group meetings and calls on issue that are truly shared – what we call “spaghetti issues”. This may include trust and community building, and shared training or best practice sharing, on issues that are relevant to all. It definitely does not mean sharing activity and status updates of doubtful relevance to other participants.
The fact that global virtual groups need a shared spirit does not mean that they need to be managed as global virtual teams with all the interdependence and synchronous communication this requires.
It’s probably less confusing to think of ‘group spirit’ as community building, rather than team building. Groups need sufficient trust and sense of identity to be able pick up the phone to colleagues when individuals need help, but that’s a very different matter to the more intensive team spirit we require when people are truly interdependent and working synchronously on a collaborative goal.
If you are a virtual group or a virtual team, this decision has big implications for how you work together: teams and groups are suitable for delivering different goals and need to be set up and managed quite differently.