Working on World Time
BY KIM KISER
About the time the sun starts to go down in the Netherlands, Russ Conser’s workday kicks into high gear. As a member of a team responsible for evaluating business opportunities for Shell Technology Ventures, a subsidiary of the oil giant Royal Dutch/Shell, Conser has been helping set up an office near The Hague. Thus far, much of his work has focused on hiring staff and figuring out the logistics of how to get the work done.
What often complicates Conser’s day isn’t so much the challenges that go along with opening a new office, it’s keeping up with his team members—about half of whom are seven time zones away in Houston.
Conser and his colleagues rely heavily on e-mail and videoconferences to communicate with one another. But getting the right message to the right people on both sides of the Atlantic hasn’t been easy. “We routinely find out we’re miscommunicating, that we forgot to inform a person in the loop, that some people had different expectations as to what’s going to happen,” he says.
The time difference adds another wrinkle. “We have about a three-hour window each day when we can interact in real time,” he explains. Consequently; phone conversations often extend into the night, when the Houston staffis at the office. Other times, the team members in the Netherlands have to wait until the sun comes up in Houston to get information they need. “When they get back to us, we’ve lost another day on the calendar,” says Conser, who has been in the Netherlands since August.
Conser isn’t alone in his struggle to communicate with colleagues an ocean away. Rather, he is part of a growing community of people who work as members of “virtual” teams, separated by time, distance, culture and organizational boundaries.
There are no reliable estimates of the number of organizations that use virtual teams (nor is there a universal definition of what, exactly, a virtual team is). But anecdotal evidence indicates the idea is gaining popularity. In some companies, team members work half a block away from their colleagues; in others, they may be half a world away~ Virtual teams may consist of employees from one company, or they may include representatives from several organizations. They may convene for a few days to solve a problem a few months to complete a project, or exist permanently.
In Virtual Teams: Reaching Across Space, Time, and Organizations With Technoogy (John Wiley & Sons, 1997), authors Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps predict that in the coming decades most people will do at least a portion of their work this way. “More teams are working across boundaries, and more companies are being assimilated into other companies,” says Lipnack, who is also CEO of NetAge, a West Newton, MA, firm that sells products and services
to help companies create virtual teams and keep them from stumbling.
Since the book was published, Lipnack says she has been amazed at the growing interest in virtual teams. People as far away as Russia and South Africa have e-mailed to ask for help in solving the problems associated with working across distances. Lipnack expects thousands more will need assistance with virtual teaming as the recen corporate marriages of Mobil and Exxon, British Petroleum and Amoco, Daimler-Benz and Chrysler, and others play out.
Deborah Duarte, a consultant and assistant professor of education at George Washington University in Washington, DC, and Nancy Tennant Snyder, corporate director of organization and leadership for Whirlpool Corp. in Benton Harbor, MI, have also heard more talk about virtual teams.
Duarte and Snyder, authors of Mastering Virtual Teams: Strategies, Tools, and Techniques That Succeed (Jossey-Bass, 1999), say that when they started working on their book in 1997, people often asked what a virtual team was. “Within the past six months, everyone seems to know what it is,” says Duarte, who has worked with Nortel Networks, NASA, and Johnson & Johnson. “People are starting to talk about it as a way to do business, as opposed to a special event.”
By using virtual teams, organizations can wrap their arms around the globe without spending a fortune on airfare and subjecting their employees to chronic jet lag. Gary Baty, vice president of human resources for VeriFone, the Santa Clara, CA-based maker of computerized swipe machines that read credit card information, says his company’s virtual environment is a selling point when recruiting. (VeriFone, which has more than 3,000 employees scattered around
the world, has used virtual teams since it was founded in 1981.) “We don’t put relocation requirements on people,” says Baty. “If a person enjoys living in Colorado and can do the job in virtual space, we’re not intimidated by that.”
IBM has also learned to let people remain in their communities. “IBM used to stand for ‘I’ve Been Moved,’” says Julie Wilson, practice executive and principal for IBM Global Services and a director of the Project Management Institute in Newtown Square, PA. “The advantage of being a virtual team member is that you don’t have to move. You have to travel, but you don’t have to move.” Wilson, who leads such a team for IBM, often shuttles between offices in Costa Mesa, CA, Somers, NY and her home in Newport Beach, CA. She adds that businesses also benefit from the arrangement because they aren’t limited by geography when looking for the best person to do a job.
But when virtual teams don’t work well, members can feel as if they’re adrift in cyberspace — or abandoned in Cleveland. “When there’s a problem, it takes longer to figure it out and know it’s going to be a problem, and it’s harder to know what to do about it,” says Duarte. Both she and Lipnack have seen virtual teams run aground for several reasons: lack of purpose, poor leadership, communication snafus, technical glitches, and failure to close cultural divides.
Andrea D’Angelo knows what it’s like to be part of what she calls a “dysfunctional” virtual team. A learning strategist for Nortel Networks’ information-services organization in Research Triangle Park, NC, D’Angelo served on one team that was trying to develop a training curriculum. The group had no program charter, no agreement as to the roles and responsibilities of each member, no face-to-face kickoff, and a leader who was lousy at program management. “We knew we weren’t being productive,” she recalls. With the help of an outside facilitator, the team eventually came together in person to discuss their problems. “We did achieve our objectives, but we were not as effective as we should have been right off the bat,” says D’Angelo.
As its members struggled, D’Angelo says the team also became hampered by a lack of trust and respect—elements that are critical to a team’s success. “Trust is the grease,” says Lipnack. “Without it, you’re not going anywhere.”
For Glen Tines, a program manager with Hewlett-Packard’s Strategic Change Services in Palo Alto, CA, and leader of a virtual team charged with designing a computer-training program for sales and support staff, trust grew out of weekly two-hour conference calls with team members. Tines says the members, who were stationed throughout the United States, went out of their way to take part in those meetings, calling in from airplanes, hotels, work and home. “Everyone had assignments, but they had to have a commitment to each other to make deadlines and be there. That held us together,” he says.
Although e-mail, electronic meetings, and other communication tools can be the veil behind which a shy person can blossom, they also can cause a more extroverted person to fade into the background. And the lack of “high-touch” can lead to confusion. “It’s always easier to look someone in the face and ask, ‘Are we understanding one another?’” says Terry Yearwood, a strategic planner for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in St. Paul. Yearwood served on a virtual team of about 15 people from around the state that had to come up with recommendations about how to link the agency’s planning and budgeting processes. She recalls that at times she didn’t feel she was communicating effectively because she had to rely on “messages and sound bites:’
In addition, the technology behind these tools can thwart even the best team’s efforts (see page 32 “Tools for Teaming”). Conser says he often spends the first 10 to 15 minutes of a videoconference trying to get the equipment to work. His team’s e-mail also has been problematic; members receive unexplained error messages and have trouble sending and opening attachments.
Conser adds that working at a distance also can exacerbate language and cultural differences. Even when they’re speaking the same language, his team members sometimes feel as though they’re talking in code—especially when the Dutch members encounter Texas colloquialisms. Conser says he’s also discovered that the Dutch members prefer more structure than their U.S. colleagues: They want more details about how a process will work, who will make the decision, and what will happen next “It’s a challenge to create the right amount of process so structured people can move forward without creating a bureaucracy that Stifles people who thrive on lack of structure,” he says. Conser and his team members often end up traveling to one place or the other to work together in person and eliminate some of those barriers.
Consultants and trainers are starting to find ways to help people work in the vague and unpredictable world of remote connectivity. “A lot of companies bumble along, but if they’re serious about this...there are some key things they need to learn,” says Lipnack.
Through NetAge, which was formed in October, she has been working with Shell Oil and other large companies to develop training and just-in-time help programs for people on virtual teams.
Lipnack says virtual-team members must learn to think differently about how they develop and track goals, determine who belongs on the team at various stages, communicate with one another, and switch between being a leader and a follower. “A lot of companies think that if they put in the right technical infrastructure, that will do it,” she says. “But as Bob Buckman [vice chairman of Buckman Laboratories in Memphis, TN, an early proponent of virtual teams] said, ‘It’s 90 percent people and 10 percent technology.’ It’s clearly an area where the hard stuff is really the soft stuff.”
Duarte and Snyder have also worked with organizations that are struggling to make the transition. “There’s a huge need for real meat-and-potatoes basic stuff,” says Snyder, who garnered much of her experience at Whirlpool, which began using virtual teams several years ago. “People are struggling with understanding what their role is, how to make it work, how to get upper management to understand their unique needs and differences, and how to get started,” she says.
George Metes, president of Virtual Learning Systems Inc. in Manchester, NH, a consultancy that provides virtual-team training, says he, too, has been getting more requests for help. Metes, who served on a virtual team while working for Digital Equipment Corp. in the 19805, says clients want to know how to overcome information overload, how to manage their time and make decisions, and how to build and manage remote teams. “People still want a quick fix, and it takes more than that,” he says. “Learning how to be in a virtual team and perform at a high level isn’t something you can get in a two-day lecture...It’s a behavioral thing.”
In addition to calling in consultants, some organizations have created their own initiatives to help people work in virtual teams. When Hewlett-Packard’s Tines found himself struggling at the helm of a virtual team six years ago, he found consultant Metes, who taught him how to structure and manage meetings, make sure everyone on the team was participating and contributing, and get the most out of technology. After that, Tines began sharing what he learned with other Hewlett-Packard employees. Since then, some of the people he informally coached are now sharing his tips, as well as their own. “There’s a lot of cross-pollination, and that leads to more effective ideas,” he says.
Nortels D’Angelo helped create a Web page that offers advice to people within the company’s information-services organization about how to develop team charters, define roles and responsibilities, plan kickoffs, and lead or manage virtual teams. The page is linked to a site for project managers, who often found themselves grappling with the difficulties of working with people at a distance.
Others have developed more formal training programs. Shell Oil, for example, established a Network Learning and Support Center in Houston as a sort of paramedic service for virtual teams. The center, which has been operating for nearly a year, provides first aid and ad hoc assistance, says Carolyn Yapp, one of the developers. it is also building a tool kit to help virtual team members learn to work together more effectively. Yapp and others from the center have been working with delegates from various Shell divisions to help others within those organizations become connected. Conser, who served on the committee that determined the need for the center, says he hopes to start working with it soon to get his team on track.
VeriFone takes new employees on a journey into virtual space on one of their first days on the job. Baty says when he joined the company, an employee in Philadelphia walked him through the system over the phone, then pointed out where he could find a series of tutorials on everything from using the computer system to making travel plans and submitting time cards from a remote location. She then monitored his progress with the tutorials, helping him through trouble spots and answering his questions. Sandra Brenden, who heads up the training group for VeriFone, says the firm also offers management courses that discuss supervising remote employees and other issues having to do with people working together virtually. In addition, facilitators from her department are available to help virtual teams establish goals and objectives.
For the past two and a half years, Sun Microsystems’ corporate university has been offering a course that teaches managers to communicate better with employees at distant locations, hold effective meetings, communicate across different cultures, and deal with technical issues. David Doty, course manager for SunU Management and Leadership in Mountain View, CA, says nearly 500 Sun employees enrolled in the course last year, and that it gained popularity within the last six months of 1998. Sun is developing a new curriculum on teams that will cover aspects of virtual teaming, and it is incorporating principles on working across boundaries in its other classes, too. “It has become a fact of business life these days,” Doty says.
Duarte and Snyder would like to see more organizations provide the kind of training in which people actually practice setting up remote agendas, running virtual meetings, dealing with performance problems, conversing with others at a distance, and leading a team of remote members. They also would like to see better training in appropriate use of technology so members don’t bury each other in So many e-mail messages that they start to tune each other out, and for teams to learn how to manage, store and distribute the information they generate.
“It would be nice to have simulations of this sort before you’re in the heat of battle or before you wake up one day and find yourself an accidental virtual team leader,” says Snyder. “It’s better to do this in peacetime than in wartime.”
KIM KISER is associate editor of TRAINING.
TRAINING MARCH 1999