On virtual teams

Changeboard CartoonEarlier this year Kevan Hall participated in the Virtual Working Summit, organized by Penny PullanToday we continue with our series of extracts.

‘Virtual’working is essentially now the norm for management and professional people. Most people these days spend at least some time working with colleagues in different locations. A lot of people seem to think that virtual teams are just ordinary teams plus a little bit on email, but it’s a bit more fundamental than that. It starts really with looking at how we work together and how we cooperate.

In virtual teams, the cost and complexity of cooperation is increased radically. There are also many types of virtual team: you might just have a remote team, it might be a global team where you’re working across cultures, it might be an extended team where you’re working with suppliers or customers. And depending on your particular type of virtual team, you may be working across barriers of distance, cultures, time zones, working through technology and even organizational complexities; it could be that you are in a  matrix with more than one boss or you yourself are working with companies outside your organization. But in all of these scenarios, the cost of cooperation increases.

For example, when I bring together my global team for face-to-face meetings – and I do it a couple of times a year – it costs us $100,000. By the time you’ve flown people to a location, you’ve got hotels, not to mention the fact that you’re taking them out of the market, it’s very, very expensive. I often ask people, “How many meetings have you been to in the last 12 months where you would write a personal cheque for $100,000?”

There’s also a diversity issue. In a virtual team, I’m working with very diverse groups of colleagues; I’m working with people in different time zones where I have a limited overlap in terms of when I can work with them; there are communication difficulties through email, etc. All of these things add complexity. Time zones may seem like a very simple issue, but when is the right time for a global conference call? The answer is that there isn’t one. Somebody will always be up in the middle of the night. All of these things add complexity –  I call them transaction costs.

Now, we also know that the actual quality of cooperation within virtual teams is fairly poor. In our virtual team survey, people have told us they spent two days a week in meetings and that half of this is unnecessary. They have also told us that they receive 60 emails a day – three quarters of which are unnecessary. I’m sure you can’t imagine any other area of business where it would be possible to sustain this kind of poor quality. If I was back in my manufacturing days and I went to my boss and said, “We’re about to launch this new factory. Don’t worry – it’s only 50 percent scrap” or “We’re about to launch this new product. It will be fine – 75 percent of the time it won’t work, but otherwise it will be OK”. It would just be ridiculous.

Basically, cooperation and communication have become much more expensive and much more complex. In economics, if something is more complex and more expensive the demand goes down. Yet in organizations, when we become more matrix and more virtual, the demand for cooperation  increases. We often work with companies who  run a “One Team” type programme but have a third of a million employees. That’s a big old team, right? And what we’ve learned is that it’s our obsession with the idea of teams that’s part of the problem – in fact, it’s one of the major causes of poor quality cooperation.

Looking at large organizations, the majority of them have  teamwork as a corporate value. They hire people for their ability to work in teams and they reward and develop them accordingly. If someone came to you in your career and said  “I’m not sure you’re a team player” it would be a kiss of death in most organizations. But if you think about it, teamwork is just a technique. It’s not a religion. It’s not a value. It’s a way of working. If we assume everything has to be done in teams, then that can very easily lead to too many people being in meetings the whole time, a slowing down of decision-making, additional costs and frustration. No one likes to be in meetings discussing things they don’t need to know!

Hear the full interview here: Virtual Working Summit

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