Bridging the Virtual Gap: It’s All About Developing New Habits
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The Truth About Performance Management: Four Insights on Making Your System Work - By Richard Lepsinger
"We have modified our environment so radically that we must modify ourselves in order to exist in this new environment."
-- Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings
"If there is an office in the future," wrote Charles Handy in a 1995 Harvard Business Review article on virtual work, "it will be more like a clubhouse: a place for meeting, eating, and greeting, with rooms reserved for activities, not for particular people." Admittedly, most organizations haven't reached that point yet, but the way we work has certainly changed dramatically since Handy's mid-1990s predictions.
Many of the world's major corporations are choosing to go virtual. According to a study from Communications of the ACM conducted by Intel Corporation in April 2009, approximately two-thirds of the company's employees were on virtual teams.
So, what has contributed to this dramatic shift in the way people work, and more specifically, the growing popularity of virtual workplaces? There are three important reasons.
First, organizations are looking for the best available talent, regardless of their geographic location, which has led them to use virtual collaboration. Today when forming teams, rather than rely on a group of people who are geographically closer but may not have the right expertise many companies strategically select talented individuals who have the appropriate skill set even though they may live thousands of miles apart.
The second reason for the prevalence of virtual teams is that that the emergence of a global economy has made it particularly challenging for organizations to quickly capitalize on shifts in the marketplace and bring new products to market, effectively innovate, and respond to customers' needs. Having team members in various locations around the world enables organizations to better meet these challenges.
What's the third reason for the growing popularity of virtual workplaces? Technology. There's no denying that advances in technology now allow organizations to achieve greater levels of efficiency and cost savings. And every year, new technologies are introduced to make it even easier and more efficient for globally dispersed teams to work together no matter how far they are physically from one another.
But it should be said that while new technologies certainly enable virtual team collaboration, technology should be viewed as one piece of a larger puzzle, rather than the "be all, end all" solution. Despite the optimism that improved technologies will continue to emerge over time, organizations will always need to balance their use of these technologies with the interpersonal and collaborative processes necessary to support virtual teamwork.
The Virtual Challenge
In a study conducted by our company, OnPoint Consulting, we found that many companies that had made significant investments in technology and virtual teams were not performing to their full potential. In fact, the study found that more than 25 percent of the virtual teams were not fully performing.
The cause, we believe, is that organizations are approaching working on and leading virtual teams as if the dynamics are the same as those of team members who are working in the same location. By and large, companies do not take the steps necessary to ensure their virtual teams and their virtual team leaders are set up for success.
But why is that the case? Why don't the practices and behaviors used effectively by managers for decades with co-located teams work just as well in a virtual environment?
To start with, managing virtually is less "forgiving" than managing teams that are co-located. Because it's harder to work in a virtual setting it's more difficult to "get away with things" and managerial weaknesses can become more pronounced. We believe there are three characteristics of managing in a virtual setting that impact the ability of managers to "just do what they've always done."
The Lack of Face-to-Face Contact
While communication among members of co-located teams can be difficult, imagine the problems when people don't have any visual cues. Although management and communication experts have known about the impact eye contact and body language has on our understanding of what another person is saying, we don't fully appreciate it until those elements are missing. It turns out that "words" and "tone of voice" is only two-thirds of the communication. The other critical element is visual cues.
This lack of contact also makes it more difficult to build personal relationships and establish trust. A great deal of the knowledge we have about people and their interests and values is gained through spontaneous, informal interactions at the coffee break, during lunch, or during informal breaks when we "visit" with people to chat. That type of spontaneous informal interaction is absent in a virtual setting and can be difficult to replicate.
The Reliance on Technology
Although technology has been a significant catalyst for virtual teams it also creates challenges of its own. No matter how "rich" the technology is, it is not as "rich" or "natural" as face-to-face communication since there is still a lot of information that's not getting through.
In addition, using technology requires more "cognitive effort." An example that illustrates this idea is learning to drive a car with a standard transmission. When you are just learning to drive using a "stick shift" it feels very unnatural and you have to think about every move - when to release the gas pedal , when to step on the clutch, when to shift the gears, when to release the clutch, and when to step on the gas. With practice the task becomes more automatic and the driver does not have to consciously think about each step.
When it comes to using technology to work and collaborate virtually, many of us are still in the early stages of learning.
Time Zone Differences
As we've noted, one advantage of virtual teams is that organizations can source personnel where ever they may be. This also presents a challenge for virtual leaders and teams. Having team members in different time zone makes it difficult to collaborate and to involve people in decisions that affect them. It also makes scheduling team v-meetings (virtual meetings) difficult (someone has to get up early or stay up late) and inhibits spontaneous interactions.
The challenge for virtual leaders and teams then is to bridge this "virtual gap" and diminish the impact distance has on collaboration and communication.
So What's the Answer?
The good news is that there is no "secret sauce." There are no undiscovered skills being used by effective virtual team leaders and team members. But it's not that simple. Our study found that although many of the skills are the same as with co-located teams, leading and working from a distance does require a significant change in behavior and habit.
Here are two examples of what we mean. Most interactions among virtual team members are business related. We're not able to "bump into" people in a virtual setting to have the kind of informal conversations that help build relationships and trust. One technique used by effective team leaders and members to bridge the "virtual gap" is to initiate a call or an instant message just to "chat." These calls or IMs are focused on topics that would be discussed in the coffee room or over lunch - family events, sports, weather, and current events.
The second is a significant increase in the use of active listening. In co-located situations people have the advantage of visual cues and misunderstandings still occur even when active listening is being used. Working without visual cues requires a dramatic increase in the use of these basic, yet powerful, communication skills.
The Bottom Line
Although many companies have made significant investments in virtual teams and the technology to support them, a surprising number of these teams do not reach their full potential.
The real secret, however, is that there is not secret. It's not about a new management skill that makes working virtually possible. The best virtual leaders and team members understand this and have bridged the "virtual gap" by adjusting their behavior and work habits to accommodate the unique characteristics of their virtual environment.
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The Truth About Performance Management: Four Insights on Making Your System Work - By Richard Lepsinger
About the Author: Richard Lepsinger
RSS for Richard's articles - Visit Richard's website
Rick is President of OnPoint Consulting and has a twenty year track record of success as a human resource consultant and executive. He was a Founder and Managing Partner of Manus, a human capital consulting firm, which he sold to Right Management Consultants in 1998. At Right, Rick was the Managing Vice President of the Northeast Consulting Practice where he was responsible to 55 professionals and grew revenue from $7 million to $20 million.
The focus of Rick's work has been on helping organizations close the gap between strategy and execution. He has served as a consultant to leaders and management teams at the Astra-Zeneca, Bayer Pharmaceuticals, Citibank, Coca-Cola Company, ConocoPhilipps, Eisai Inc., Goldman Sachs, Johnson & Johnson, KPMG, Merck & Co., the NYSE Euronext, Northwestern Mutual Life, Pfizer Inc., Pitney Bowes, Prudential, Siemens Medical Systems, and Subaru of America among others.
Rick has extensive experience in formulating and implementing strategic plans, managing change, and talent management. He has addressed executive conferences and made presentations to leadership teams on leader effectiveness, strategy execution, performance management, 360ï¿½ feedback and its uses, and developing and using competency models.
Rick has authored or co-authored five books on leadership including Closing the Execution Gap: How Great Leaders and Their Companies Get Results published by Jossey-Bass/Wiley, Flexible Leadership: Creating Value by Balancing Multiple Challenges and Choices, (co-author with Dr. Gary Yukl) published by Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, The Art and Science of 360º Feedback, (co-author with Toni Lucia) published by Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, and The Art and Science of Competency Models, (co-author with Toni Lucia) of published by Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer. His newest book is Virtual Team Success: A Practical Guide to Working and Leading From a Distance published by Jossey-Bass/Wiley.
Click here to visit Richard's website.
More from Richard Lepsinger
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