Wednesday, 31 July 2013 09:02

Beyond the Telecommuting Debate: Seven Success Factors for Virtual and Collocated Project Teams Part 2

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In the first part of this series of articles, I discussed the forces that can psychologically divide teams and hamper their performance. These include the temporary or permanent physical separation typical of telecommuting arrangements and virtual teams as well as cultural and organizational factors. In this second part, I’ll talk about success factors critical to fostering collaboration among all teams, whether or not members telecommute or work in different locations.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s decision to eliminate telecommuting stirred up controversy about telecommuting’s advantages and disadvantages. Jackie Reses, Yahoo’s head of human resources, justified the decision in the memo announcing the policy change to employees on the grounds that:

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together (Swisher, 2013).

While Yahoo’s new policy clearly favors team collocation as a means to promote collaboration and innovation, as Yael Zofi (2012) of Aim Strategies observed, “Virtual team arrangements have become increasingly popular as companies rethink their human capital resources and real estate expenditures” (p. 13). They may be the only choice when organizations must harness staff that are housed in multiple locations.

Even Yahoo has benefited from their successful web site for women which was created by a geographically dispersed team of home-based employees. Project leader Brandon Holley felt using a virtual team provided an advantage, claiming “It grew very rapidly. A lot of that had to do with the lack of distraction in a very distracted company” (Miller & Perlroth, 2013). The recipe for successful innovation, then, seems more complicated than just simply ordering all staff to report to the office every day.

Project Collaboration and Virtual Distance

Collaboration is critical to successful project execution (Binder, 2007). Project teams do need good environments, but just throwing people in a room or giving them permission to work from home without providing the right conditions is a recipe for disappointment, if not disaster (Mezick, 2012).

Karen Lojeski (2010) of Virtual Distance International developed the concept of “Virtual Distance” to describe the many forces that can divide teams and inhibit collaboration. The concept goes beyond simple physical proximity to include disconnections due to the use of technology and dysfunctional working relationships. Project performance, collaboration and work output suffers for both virtual and collocated teams when Virtual

Distance is high (Lojeski, 2010). Success factors crucial to promoting collaboration and reducing Virtual Distance to be discussed in this paper include:

  • A physical or virtual environment that facilitates teamwork
  • Assigning people that are willing and able to collaborate
  • Developing shared goals and vision
  • Promoting mutual trust and respect
  • Defining acceptable behavior in a framework of rules
  • Making the environment safe for failure and conflict
  • Obtaining active management support

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A Physical or Virtual Environment That Facilitates Teamwork

It is common for project teams to be provided with a combination of office space and virtual environments to facilitate communication and information sharing. The virtual environment would include a project management information system, which is a suite of technology-based tools to manage documentation and communication among team members and other stakeholders (Sy, 2009). These tools might be further supplemented with Web-based document repositories, teleconferencing, Web conferencing and video conferencing tools (Zofi, 2012, Lojeski & Reilly, 2008).

Agile project management best practices provide useful insights into the question of collocation’s value. These approaches were specifically intended to foster team interaction, creativity and innovation. Ken Schwaber and Mike Beedle (2002) expressed their preference for housing a team in a large open workspace as a means of promoting collaboration in an immersive environment. Despite that recommendation, the popularity of outsourcing and offshoring has led to the wide and effective use of virtual agile teams.

During a recent discussion with Karen Lojeski, she stressed that in any environment, project managers have to find ways to be visible among team members and ensure everyone connects at a human level. Even collocated teams can suffer from high Virtual Distance if other factors that affect working relationships aren’t addressed. She feels strongly that traditional management models just don’t work anymore in today’s workplace and have to be modified or replaced.

Assigning People That Are Willing and Able to Collaborate

Peter Senge (1990) believes “the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into a genuine ‘thinking together’ “(p. 10) is the first step for the team learning essential for collaboration. Without people willing and able to collaborate, Senge’s belief suggests knowledge and technical prowess would not be sufficient to guarantee positive project outcomes. Compensation and incentive programs or organization charts may also need to be changed to reinforce desirable collaborative behaviors when team members are drawn from different functional silos within an organization (Hansen, 2009).

I asked Andy Singleton of Assembla, whose job includes managing a lot of virtual teams about the importance of selecting the right people. He said that “In our teams, collaborative ability is important, and we qualify people for it. Before we hire them on a long-term contract, we do a two-week trial to see if they can work with our distributed team.” He admits that people who might fit into a collocated team may be rejected because of their work habits, but he feels that teams may gain some good collaborators with limited speaking skills. He advocates teaching people how to fit into virtual teams by providing them with coaching and checklists.

Developing Shared Goals and Vision

Shared goals and vision are critical to helping any team cope with ambiguity, complexity and adversity. Project sponsors and senior managers should define goals and vision to unify the project team as well as the organization at large (Hansen, 2009). They also have to support and defend them as needed throughout the project. Project goals and vision should always be clearly identified in a project’s charter as its purpose or justification, including any metrics that could be used to define success (PMBOK Guide, 2013).

Promoting Mutual Trust and Respect

Daniel Mezick (2012) emphasizes trust and respect as the foundation of successful team performance. He considers respect to be “a positive feeling of esteem for a person and specific actions and conduct representative of that esteem” (p. 56). Patrick Lencioni (2002) defines trust within teams as “the confidence among team members that their peer’s intentions are good, and there is no need to be protective or careful around the group” (p. 195). This allows team members to ask questions and act without fear of ridicule. Karen Lojeski told me her own research showed “trust is at the center” of positive team relationships and reducing Virtual Distance.

Time and patience may be needed to develop trust and respect when team members have diverse backgrounds. Teams also have to be encouraged to admit when they don’t have answers and need help. I worked on a software development project in which I held regular developer team meetings. I would always ask the attendees to share any questions or issues with the rest of the team and almost always would be met with silence. Afterwards, one or more developers would contact me after the meeting to report problems. I learned you have to be patient and provide private communication channels in addition to public ones until everyone is truly comfortable with each other.

Defining Acceptable Behavior in a Framework of Rules

Acceptable forms of behavior must be defined and clearly communicated as rules to provide a basis for accountability among all team members (Zofi, 2012). Rules establish boundaries on behavior, and those boundaries stimulate team members to creatively solve problems and overcome hurdles (Mezick, 2012). Leaders at all levels must promote and practice all agreed-upon rules to encourage all team members to cooperate fully. The rules for managing communication within the team and how issues are discussed, resolved and escalated to senior management are especially important as they can help teams productively manage conflict (PMBOK Guide, 2013).

Making the Environment Safe for Failure and Conflict

Project teams must also be provided with environments in which it is safe to fail, and to manage conflict positively. This is because, as Mezick (2012) notes, innovation requires teams to take risks and deal with the different opinions and viewpoints of individual members. He believes tolerance for failure early in projects promotes learning, and effective conflict resolution helps teams productively iron out differences.

Obtaining Active Management and Support

John Kotter (2007) highlights strong leadership and management support as key steps needed in any successful change initiative. He believes while it may not be necessary to obtain unanimous support from everyone in the highest echelons of an organization, it is essential to have a critical mass of key personnel willing to work as a team to embrace a project’s vision and goals and provide guidance (Kotter, 2007). These leaders may be instrumental in helping a project team overcome adversity, resolve issues and conflicts or manage risks (PMBOK Guide, 2013).

In the third and final part of this series, I’ll provide strategies and tactics for fostering team collaboration based on the seven success factors described above. I’ll also talk about the role of the project manager in managing Virtual Distance and helping to ensure positive, productive team environments.

Don't forget to leave your comments below.

References and Bibliography
Binder, J. (2007). Global project management: Communication, collaboration and management across borders. Burlington, VT: Gower Publishing Company.
Hansen, M. (2009). Collaboration: How leaders avoid the traps, create unity, and reap big results. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.
Kotter, J. (2007). Leading change – why transformation efforts fail. Harvard Business Review (January, 2007) Retrieved from www.hbreprints.org
Lencioni, P. (2002). The five dysfunctions of a team: A leadership fable. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Lojeski, K. (2010). Leading the virtual workforce: How great leaders transform organizations in the 21st century. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Lojeski, K. & Reilly R. (2008). Uniting the virtual workforce: Transforming leadership and innovation in the globally integrated enterprise. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Mezick, D. (2012). The culture game: Tools for the agile manager. No publisher listed.
Miller, C. & Perlroth, N. (2013, March 5). Yahoo says new policy is meant to raise morale. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/06/technology/yahoos-in-office-policy-aims-to-bolster-morale.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
Project Management Institute, Inc. (2013). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK Guide) (5th edition). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute, Inc.
Schwaber, K. & Beedle, M. (2002). Agile project management with scrum. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York, NY: Doubleday.
Swisher, K. (2013, February 22). “Physically together”: Here’s the internal yahoo no-work-from-home memo for remote workers and maybe more. AllThingsD. Retrieved from http://allthingsd.com/20130222/physically-together-heres-the-internal-yahoo-no-work-from-home-memo-which-extends-beyond-remote-workers/.
Sy, D. (2009). Sharepoint for project management. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly
Turkle, S. (2012, April 22). The flight from conversation. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/opinion/sunday/the-flight-from-conversation.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
Zofi, Y. (2012). A manager’s guide to virtual teams. New York, NY: American Management Association

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Lawrence Mantrone

Lawrence Mantrone is a management consultant and a professor at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. He has almost twenty years of experience managing information technology projects involving both collocated and virtual teams.  He is a Project Management Professional and a Certified Scrum Master.

Comments  

0 # Gary Mayer 2013-08-01 17:25
I found the concept of "virtual distance" helpful to my understanding of issues affecting collaboration.
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0 # Lawrence Mantrone 2013-08-01 18:32
Virtual Distance really is a useful model for analyzing causes of team dysfunction. It's also possible to develop strategies to address them, whether they are due to geographical distance, cultural factors or organizational issues.

You can find two helpful whitepapers with more information about Virtual Distance at http://virtualdistance.com/whitepapers/.
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0 # Jill Lanier 2013-08-21 06:27
Good article Larry. I too found the concept of "virtual distance" a good way to describe one of the obstacles to effective team performance.

It is also interesting that the dynamic between team members is extremely important regardless of the degree of physical proximity. In fact, perhaps physical proximity serves to "subsidize" poor dynamic! Since things still get done, people don't tend to examine what would make an in-face group work better, whereas a poor dynamic in a virtual environment has an immediately recognizable impact, which needs to be addressed in order to achieve successful outcomes.
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0 # Larry Mantrone 2013-08-21 11:06
Thanks for your comment, Jill.

I agree teams may not analyze and optimize the working relationships of a collocated team until a deadline is missed, or something catastrophic happens to a project or a process. Virtual teams are certainly working at a disadvantage if members of the organization are expecting them to fail. People may even monitor a virtual team's progress closely and pounce when they see any signs of adversity.

One hopes that collocated teams will make the most of their opportunities to work face-to-face, but too often, it isn't the case. Sherry Turkle reported on this in her NY Times article, The Flight From Conversation. (A link to her article appears in the References and Bibliography section above.) She's found that more people are effectively hiding behind technological walls at work and not even talking with each other as much.

In the third part of this series of articles, I relay Andy Singleton's views regarding technology in the workplace. He believes younger employees are more comfortable with it and rely on it as a primary means of communication. Others, like Turkle and Karen Lojeski, are concerned that communication technology may be used too much, or for inappropriate situations. It's important for teams to work out ground rules for how routine and special communications should be handled.
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