This article is based on How to Manage Virtual Teams , by Frank Siebdrat, Martin Hoegl and Holger Ernst
By Mark Boone
Teams are essential to an organization’s success. They provide the collaborative resources of different talents, skillsets, and perspectives needed to reach corporate goals. The traditional method of team structuring consisted of collocating team members in a specific location. This is partly because of high interdependencies that commonly exist in work groups. Those times are fading fast; during this modern era of business practices with the benefit of today’s technology, more and more companies are starting to develop project teams that are spread out amongst many geographical locations. Dispersed teams provide an organization with the benefits of multiple cultural backgrounds and language which helps broaden their scope as an organization. Dispersed teams provide a greater proficiency in team performance; however, these virtual collaborations areonly effective when managed in a specific manner.
The Pros and Cons of Dispersion
The level of a team’s dispersion is not fixed or preordained by a company. It can be set and adjusted as the organization sees fit. When doing so, managers must closely scrutinize the positive and negative effects of separating their team. Certain uncontrollable barriers created by long distance communications may be a challenge to avoid. Such potential issues include conflict in coordination, lack of trust, inability to establish commonality, and simply difficulties in communication. On the bright side, distance also promotes frequent lines of communication and development of interpersonal relationships because of the lack of a physical presence. Another conflict may occur around planning through multiple time zones. This can lead to confusion and frustration among the members and managers.
Over a decade of research has been conducted on the differences of performance between collocated and dispersed teams. The study involved 80 software development teams from 28 different labs from all around the world. Each lab was comprised of many developers ranging from 20-5,500. The analyst took into account the calculations and data of multiple dispersion factors including the number of locations per team, time zone variations, and unevenness of memberships. This study took over a year to perform.The findings suggested that most company teams utilize dispersion to some degree, whether it is spreading out in the office, across the hall, or across the globe. Previous studies have shown the even the least amount of dispersion such as splitting a team up on different floors in the same building can enhance the quality of collaboration performance.
Some of the data obtained was customer satisfaction, product quality, reliability, and so on. The results showed great advantages in dispersion. Even large companies such as General Electric, SAP, and IBM use this method in order to cluster their competencies in multiple areas of excellence. For example, the company Aktiengesellschaft is headquartered in Germany but has sizable R&D locations in the U.S. Israel, China, and India in order to keep cost low and tap into the global know-how in software development.
Research shows that managers can benefit for this organizational structure by assigning employees from different locations to such a network to integrate a pool of expertise. Data also indicates that these virtual team environments provide an increased heterogeneous link of work experience which tend to incorporate greater degrees of demographic and structural diversity than collocated teams.
Dos and Don’ts of Managing Dispersion Teams
In order to implement an effective approach to managing a virtual team, there are certain mechanisms that must be taken into consideration. Managers should focus on tasks that will maximize the special expertise and knowledge of the group. These key elements will help maximize performance.
- First, place an emphasis on teamwork skills. This is one of the primary reasons for organizing a virtual team to tap into superior knowledge in remote regions.
- Secondly, seek and promote self-leadership within your dispersion team. Each member should have well developed leadership capabilities.
- Foster and embrace a global culture. Research has suggested that those with a global mindset and see themselves as an international community will positively contribute to such an environment that is required for dispersed teams.