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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Workplace Doctor: Struggling to find a way in a virtual world

Frustration at manager among team relying on Web and internet

A good understanding of the world of virtual work is key if a firm's employees are spread across different locations. Petr David Josek / AP
A good understanding of the world of virtual work is key if a firm's employees are spread across different locations. Petr David Josek / AP

QI work for a small logistics company and we have offices in various locations in the region. We rely a great deal on the internet and web technology, but the problem is our section manager has very little experience of working in the virtual world with regards to leading the team across the various offices. This has led to increasing confusion and frustration and is fragmenting the team, leading several to actively disengage from the web-based team to pursue objectives outside of the loop, so to speak. This is becoming a serious issue, I believe, but our section team leader does not seem to be addressing it. What can be done? CH Abu Dhabi

AThis is an important and increasingly relevant question, as our world becomes ever more global and our ways of working are becoming ever more virtual.

Favourably, virtual teams allow organisations to leverage their best talent available, accessing a wide range of experience and perspectives. On the other hand, virtual teams are bringing their own unique set of challenges – such as scheduling meetings across a range of time zones, different cultural norms and communication styles, challenging team dynamics as well as potential technical difficulties. It is estimated therefore that up to 50 per cent of virtual teams fail to meet their objectives and often choose not to work together again.

As you are already experiencing within your regional logistics team, there is a huge digital divide opening up between leaders that adopt digitisation and those that are falling behind, with positive or negative career outcomes on both sides of the divide.

If leadership is not already challenging enough today, leading a team has stepped up another notch in its scale of complexity and challenge within virtual teams, so it’s helpful to have some perspective and understanding of your section manager’s predicament, if you are to improve the situation.

Your section manager may have successfully led teams before without any problems, but it takes a highly skilled team leader to be able to build, manage and maintain a successful virtual team. Virtual team leaders need all the skills necessary when managing face to face, but also a lot more.

The most fundamental success factor for a virtual team is the quality of the team relationships to build a strong foundation of trust within the team. Virtual teams risk losing the human element of the workplace and, as some researchers have observed, the absence of those informal opportunities to collaborate and build rapport means that it is much harder to build trust and create a sense of common purpose and engagement in virtual teams. Virtual leaders need to dedicate more time, energy and resources to establishing good relationships throughout the team, not only between themselves but also between colleagues.

Other success factors are around effective communication and clarity, as virtual communication can make it much harder to interpret messages and make meaning understood. Clear communication, ranging from the selection of the technology platform to best suit the team, to excellent listening skills and the ability to paraphrase and summarise what others are saying to check that messages are indeed being received are essential. Having clear roles within the team based on each members’ strengths and capabilities, with individual accountability, is equally important. It therefore calls for the team leader to err on the side of more detail, clarity and direction and having a more disciplined approach to team facilitation than in conventional face to face teams.

Considering the above, where do you think your team is at? What do you think can be done to enhance the relationships and build more trust and collaboration within your team? Perhaps you can factor in a few minutes’ small talk at the start of your meetings to get to know a little more about each other. If possible, could you make a recommendation to meet up occasionally for an informal gathering, as most virtual teams find it very useful to meet face-to-face when they can?

What elements do you think will improve communication and create more clarity within your team? For instance, taking time to confirm conclusions and key points during meetings will ensure that everyone is on the same page.

Depending on the relationship you have with your manager and your level of comfort, could you discuss your interest to collaborate and work towards becoming a highly effective virtual team going forward?

Doctor’s prescription:

Although virtual teams have been around for some time now, it is clear, as in your own experience, that not many have made the transition to effective virtual working. To make virtual teams more successful, the onus falls on team members like yourself to step out of their comfort zone and to influence and take initiative in supporting this important transition.

Yolande Basson is an executive coach and consultant for Ashridge Executive Education Middle East

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