Virtual, or distributed, teams are on the rise according to World Economic Forum’s 2016 report “Employment Trends.” The report states that upward trends in telecommuting, co-working spaces, virtual teams, and freelancing are one of the biggest drivers in the transformation of business models.
Among them, according to tech blogger Darleen DeRosa’s in “3 Companies With High-Performing Virtual Teams” on OnPointConsultingLLC.com, is SAP, which manages more than 30,000 employees in 60 countries. SAP uses an organizational development consulting company to coordinate virtual teams with large Research and Development (R&D) centers located throughout the world.
IBM, a Fortune 500 company, successfully manages more than 200,000 employees by using a Results Oriented Work Environment (ROWE). Through ROWE, virtual teams can span multiple time zones, coordinating employees’ efforts during the hours when they can be most productive.
IBM’s ability to make the most of remote networking technologies and virtual teams contributes to its continued success in a world of constantly evolving information technology.
Effectively Managing Teams Of Remote Workers
Managing virtual teams requires an understanding of remote workers and why they are necessary in today’s business environment.
Distributed workforces are becoming more prevalent, and students pursuing their master’s degree in business administration can expect to be a member or manager of a virtual team at some point in their career. MBA graduates should familiarize themselves with relevant trends and issues facing distributed team management.
“”Virtual teams have come about by a combination of technology, necessity, and the constraints of time and budget,” economist David Bolchover says in Jerome Rowley’s “Working Together – How To Manage Virtual Teams Across Borders” on 4SquareViews.com. “Technology has allowed teleconferencing with greater sophistication, and many businesses are international and straddle several time zones and need for employees in different countries to work together in teams.”
The benefits of virtual teams, especially internationally, include unbeatable talent pools, providing companies with valuable insights from various cultural perspectives. The use of remote workers also reduces overhead costs associated with keeping all employees under one roof.
Bolchover also highlights problems that can arise in virtual team management and ways to alleviate them, including:
- Time zones – Virtual team members may be located anywhere in the country or world, making “working hours” different for each team member. One team member may end up working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.in Palo Alto, while a teammate in Hong Kong doesn’t even begin work until 5 p.m. (9 a.m. Hong Kong time).
- Groupthink and anarchy – Virtual teams may fall into the trap of conforming to the opinion of the manager or senior members. Such groupthink can discourage creativity and individual responsibility. On the other hand, team members might endlessly go off on opinionated tangents. A perceptive manager can counter this trend by preparing agendas ahead of time and allowing junior members to speak first at meetings.
- Language barriers – Virtual teams often include people who speak different languages and even those who are multilingual may have varying levels of proficiency. To reduce language barriers managers can prepare information in writing ahead of time and ask speakers to enunciate and speak slowly.
- Trust – Team members tend to trust each other more readily if they have met in person. Physical meetings help put a face to a name, which helps team members to feel that they actually know each other. Working with a stranger on the other side of the world can be more of a challenge. Managers can counteract this effect by scheduling face-to-face meetings occasionally and requiring team member profiles so names and faces can be connected to personal information and accessible backstories.
Technology Designed To Make Virtual Teams Productive
New internet technologies in the form of web services and applications have made virtual teams a reality and a standard operating procedure for many companies. Managers can take advantage of innovative platforms to help their virtual teams run smoothly and efficiently.
Applications that virtual teams frequently use to coordinate their efforts and maximize work output in include Google Apps (office programs allowing for multiple user access simultaneously), Basecamp (a central hub for team communication and projects), Trello (a visual collaborative project tool), Wrike (cloud-based software that streamlines team workflow), and Salesforce.com (a cloud-based customer relationship management platform).
Each platform lets virtual teams collaborate on projects, follow each others’ work, access group documents, share resources, and easily pass completed assignments on to coworkers.
“Communicating with team members overseas isn’t as challenging as it used to be – thanks to technology,” entrepreneurship expert John Rampton explains in his article, “How To Grow And Manage International Teams,” in Forbes. “While you could always pick up the phone or send an email, you can also get in touch with team members via text or social media. You should also plan weekly conference calls through Skype or Google Hangouts or schedule webinars or face-to-face meetings to ensure your team is all on the same page.
Handling Cultural Differences In Virtual Teams
Virtual team members often run into cultural barriers with counterparts in other countries. Communication can become difficult when different dialects are being used, and some team members may handle group administrative tasks differently according to their local customs.
Managers must be prepared to handle issues arising from cultural differences as they come up or pre-empt them before they arise.
Different cultures have varying views on issues such child labor laws, fair and living wages, women in the workplace, work hours, religious holidays, business regulations in different environments, and laws concerning certain materials, resources, and practices. Virtual team managers need to be careful how they address cultural differences.
“Some activities are wrong no matter where they take place. But some practices that are unethical in one setting may be acceptable in another,” writes business ethics authority Thomas Donaldson in “Values In Tension: Ethics Away From Home” in Harvard Business Review.
Donaldson stresses that a manager of teams that span multiple national borders should carefully and diligently review issues arising from cultural differences and determine whether the issue is a problem or just a cultural variance.
Ohio University’s Master Of Business Administration Degree
Nationally recognized by US News & World Report as a “Best Online MBA” program, Ohio University’s online MBA degree program takes advantage of the latest in online classroom technology to bring students an engaging and academically rigorous experience that can benefit them in their careers.
Ohio University offers concentrations in finance, health care, executive management, and business analytics. The program offers graduates the business background and technological understanding to be remote workers or members of virtual teams during their careers.