Breaking the Barriers

by John Ward

Virtual teams allow communication across geographic lines, but there may be pitfalls along the way.


Every week, Michael Hollis, vice president and business development leader at SVS Inc., gathers his teammates to discuss the Albuquerque high tech engineering firm’s latest project. Butt instead of sitting around a conference room table to share ideas, they set up a teleconference and use interactive whiteboards. With a click of a mouse, Hollis’ teammates across the n­ation present their ideas and argue over the best way to go forward. At the end of the meeting, they discuss their conclusions, allocate responsibilities and verify assignments — all without spending a single minute in the same room.


Hollis’ group is one example of a vir­tual team. And the definitions of what, exactly, constitutes a virtual team are as varied as the teams themselves. Jessica Lipnack, co-author of Virtual Teams:

Reaching Across Space, Time, and Organizations with Technology (John Wiley & Sons, 1997), virtual teams tend to have shared purpose and “a good streak of independence.”


The popularity of virtual teams continues to grow as mnore companies increase their international presence. In­-person meetings mean higher travel costs, not to mention lost work time and family disruption. Many companies are discovering that technology makes meet­ings easier and less expensive, allowing team members to collaborate without ever leaving the office.


Virtual teamwork is possible today because of innovations like email, videoconferencing, teleconferencing, pagers, white boards, mobile phones and laptops. But there is more to it than modems and messages. “Technology is 10 percent,” says Lipnack. “People are 90 percent.”


In many businesses, the company rewards competitive behavior more than teamwork. “It’s a challenge to create a productive team of people,” she says. “You run into misunderstandings, hurt feelings, lack of clear goals, confusion around accountability, and an inability to gain alignment.”


That can be true of any team, but the issues become more pronounced when a team member in London has a misun­derstanding with a teammate in New York. With no opportunity for them to get together in person to solve the dis­pute, small misunderstandings can blow up into huge problems. “When you can’t look someone in the face to detect signs of a problem, it’s necessary to look for different dues, mostly in the voice,” says Trina Hoefling, vice president of training and consulting at Denver-based Consult One Group.


Hoefling believes the key is to set up a culture where people feel comfortable disagreeing and challenging each other’s opinions. “It means determining at the outset who needs to communicate with whom, about what, how often and through what medium.”


It’s important to remember that the concept of virtual teams is still relatively new, Lipnack says. “In 20 years, planning and management will be easier and team failures fewer, because we’ll have a gener­ation that has grown up with the tech­nology along with the skills to make it work better,” she says.


Building a Virtual Team

Hoefling, Lipnack and Hollis give the fol­lowing advice to anyone contemplating a move to virtual teams:


The first time you meet, do it in person.

This will give team members an opportu­nity to match each other’s faces with voices. It will also help build trust.


Have a mission, goals and a plan. By putting these in writing, you can give team members a view of the big picture. Also, be sure to set milestones for every project, and measure results when you get to those points. When you do meet — either in person or online — conclude each meeting with a summary of deci­sions and assigned responsibilities.


Establish a set of protocols or norms. Get everyone’s agreement on how things will work. Should your team get together once a week? Once a month? Should you gather for a conference call or hold the meeting online? Because teams by nature are a collection of loose parts that need encouragement, support and guidance to run smoothly, you need to find common ground to suit different communication styles.


Bring in the experts. Invite authors, con­sultants or key people within the organi­zation to meet with the team periodically. Continuous learning builds enthusiasm and productivity among team members.


Give credit where it’s due. When a team member accomplishes a task in an extraor­dinary manner, praise that person in front of the team and let others add their kudos.


Use technology to promote interaction.

Provide a chat room, virtual water cooler or bulletin board, and encourage team members to use them for socializing and doing business. These electronic tools serve as an anchor to keep the team com­fortable when there’s a lack of face-to-face interaction.



John Ward is a freelance writer in

Albuquerque. He can be reached