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Transforming the effectiveness of virtual teams

Mobile and online collaborative tools have enabled the creation of virtual teams – but the ad hoc adoption of this form of working, with few companies creating clear management or technology adoption strategies, is leading to problems. With one in three individuals claiming that virtual teams are poorly managed, organisations need to consider the implications of virtual working and recognise that effective collaboration requires more than email and video conferencing. As Chris de Silva, managing director of NEC IT Solutions, explains, to exploit the value of virtual working, tap into global expertise and ensure consistent productivity, organisations must put in place robust management practices that are supported by tailored collaborative and communications technologies.

 

Date: 22 Aug 2011

Unstructured Evolution
The arrival of ubiquitous mobile networks to enable remote and mobile working has transformed business practice over the past decade. Organisations can leverage global expertise via video conferencing and online collaborative tools to drive up productivity without incurring additional costs; they can support flexible working goals; and improve green credentials by reducing travel, nationally and internationally.

But just how much thought has been given to the structure of teams working remotely? How effectively are these virtual teams managed? And is there any consistency in the way teams exploit the vast range of communications technologies now available?

According to recent research undertaken by the Economist Intelligence Unit remote working has become a standard component of corporate life. Nearly eight out of ten (78%) respondents work in a virtual team or have worked in a virtual team in the recent past. Of the 22% who do not currently work in a virtual team, one in four expects to do so in the near future.

However, this creation of virtual teams has occurred organically rather than strategically, with few organisations actually adopting virtual working to meet specific corporate goals such as flexible working (only 11%) or corporate social responsibility (CSR). In reality, for almost half (49%) of all companies, virtual working has simply evolved. And one result of this ad hoc approach has been poor management, with one in three respondents maintaining virtual teams are badly managed.

Enabling Technologies
But what is the cause of that poor management? Technology is in place today to enable extraordinary communication and collaboration, with real time access to shared documents and web based forums. The study reveals that too many teams are reliant on email and phone for the majority of communication. This makes sharing information and effectively collaborating tough, and increases the risk of misunderstanding as a result of language or cultural differences.

It is, of course, no surprise that email is regularly used by 96% of respondents to communicate and collaborate with the virtual team; or that 77% used a fixed phone and 77% a mobile phone or other mobile device. These are the tools that gave rise to the creation of the virtual team and remote working.

More than half (54%) also use video conferencing on a regular basis, a figure that rises to about two-thirds (64%) for the largest firms. Over half (51%) also use web conferencing and/or virtual meeting spaces to communicate and collaborate with the rest of the team.

But the lack of strategic approach to the development of virtual teams is underpinned by the scale of technology adoption. For example, despite the fact that the majority (56%) of respondents work in project-based virtual teams either internally or cross organisation to meet specific objectives, only 38% have a shared calendar or project plans.

Furthermore, whilst one in three respondents (rising to 41% in the UK) cites access to a larger global skills base as one reason for the creation of virtual teams, in reality, the majority of teams are actually run locally and, hence less than a quarter (24%) use voice over IP.

Other tools are used sporadically at best, with 35% using IM, only 13% using discussion forums, 13% using web based real time messaging tools and a tiny 5% using online office suites.

Supporting Processes
There is so much more functionality that could be used to deliver extraordinary improvements in the productivity of virtual teams and to minimise the potential misunderstandings that occur when colleagues are not communicating face to face. From simple tools such as the ability to use presence information to determine a colleague’s availability, to the use of fixed/mobile communications to seamlessly transfer a user between available networks from a single mobile device, the opportunities for organisations to improve the virtual team environment are clear.

More significantly, organisations can now leverage developments in both unified communications and cloud computing to quickly deploy tailored ‘mashup’ applications, combining data and services from multiple internal and third party sources, to reflect the specific needs of a user or team.

Providing a service manager handling a virtual team with a map based mashup, for example, can transform productivity. The GPS system within employee mobile phones provides an immediate and continuous picture of the location of all staff. This information can be overlaid with staff skills profiles and combined with presence to ensure only relevant and available staff are contacted to handle a specific customer task.

Indeed, the manager can use integrated unified communications to contact the chosen individual via text, voice or email, as preferred. The entire process can be achieved using one, easy to read map based screen to check the resources available, make a decision and contact the right person.

For virtual workers the team is managed far more effectively, minimising disruptive interruptions, whilst the organisation gains significant productivity improvements.

Conclusion

Virtual working is becoming a standard component of corporate operations. And while only 4% work this way all the time, 45% of respondents spend between 20% and 60% of their time working in virtual teams.

The good news is that respondents are positive about working in virtual teams, with more than two out of three believing the advantages of working in a virtual team outweigh the disadvantages.

But as more and more people are involved in virtual working, often shifting between teams both internally and cross-organisation, it is imperative that companies take a far more strategic approach to virtual team management, from developing new processes to supporting staff with tools that reflect the challenges of remote operations.

Please note that the research referred to in this opinion was carried out the Economist Intelligence Unit at the end of 2009.
 

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