With cloud computing, web conferencing and other technological tools, more and more people are expected to work in virtual teams. Teams are often set up for a specific purpose such as an investment transaction and they are then disbanded upon completion of the transaction. It implies that the newly set up team have to learn to collaborate, within a short space of time, so as to be able to complete the tasks or project that they have been assigned to. Team work now takes a whole different meaning.
Virtual teams are sometimes large in size involving 50 people or more, based in various countries and coming from different professional background. How to ensure that such teams are able to live up to the expectations of their employer(s) ? Working in such teams requires a number of soft skills: flexibility in behavioural style, ability to put yourself in the shoes of others (empathy), keeping an open mind and self awareness. They are skills that are not acquired through technical training but mainly through life experiences, coaching and commitment towards oneself if you intend to pursue a career in multinational companies.
It is also the responsibility of the employers to create an environment that encourages a collaborative culture and minimises intercultural disharmony. When employees are valued for their contribution and value based behaviour, they are encouraged to be a valuable team player. Incentives that focus on credentials and age are restrictive as they do not reward those who go the extra mile to ensure team cohesion. It is true that some cultures value seniority and hierarchy. Building team cohesion in these cultures would mean encouraging the senior executives to set the right example. A great performing team would certainly lead to more career advancement for every team member including the team leader and the senior executives involved.
Efficiency needs to be measured by how the team as a whole has reached consensus in making choices. Rapid and fast decision making sometimes leads to frustration amongst the team members as they may feel not being listened to. Frustration, anger can lead to disruptive behaviour from those same team members. Implementation of any decision becomes more of a challenge as no team consensus was reached. Decisions will then have to be reviewed or changed at a later stage leading to additional unexpected costs.
Culturally diverse teams are indeed more complex to manage and lead. It is important to set certain ground rules: how to resolve disagreements amongst members, setting up and running meetings, etc. As human beings, we tend to pay more attention to negative information because it is a sign of danger. Unresolved conflicts or tension amongst team members of different cultures may lead to the wrong assumptions being made about these cultures: “They are incompatible and cannot work together”. All efforts of building a strong team spirit have then been wasted and having to start from scratch once more is very disheartening for those involved. It also requires additional resources that have not been budgeted – implying that it would require the team leader to negotiate further for the project to continue on.
A great team is one which can regularly attract the right talents because people are more than willing to join them. The team dynamic is such that it encourages the right attitude amongst the team members. Performing teams are able to resolve day to day issues on their own and lean towards their team leaders or senior executives for strategic direction. Team leaders do play an important role in helping the team members resolve issues. Mentoring and coaching become embedded in their attitudes towards managing their teams.
Encouraging and nurturing social relationships amongst the team members is an important investment to make as it helps them to bond and build trust from within. Over time, they tend to genuinely care for each other and are open about what works and what does not work in terms of team dynamics. When the team, as whole, become conscious of their weaknesses and discuss openly about them, they become stronger as they are willing to face their inherent challenges and find solutions that work for the team. Hiding behind excuses or blaming others actually undermines the respect that outsiders have for the team members.
It is essential that team performance is not limited to quantitative targets such as number of investment transactions achieved or level of sales attained, time to implement or complete the project. Other indicators such as level of absenteeism amongst the team members, regular review of the soft skills set of each team member, how well each team member know each other are important to assess the team’s performance. Incentives need to ensure that the interests of the team members are all aligned and they are meant to cooperate and not compete with each other.