What all virtual teams have in common is that they are working on a project, but may not be located in close physical proximity, and they must find ways to communicate, track progress, and manage tasks without being able to physically meet regularly. The prerequisites for success with virtual teams are 1) clear, manageable objectives; 2) management's commitment to necessary resources; and 3) mature management and technical personnel. Learn how to lead a workgroup you cannot see.
Imagine waking up on a beautiful morning at your home in northeastern Vermont overlooking the Green Mountains. Before you eat breakfast, you go to your office in another part of the building and turn on your computer. You start groupware and email programs to fetch today's news, email, and schedule. You have a leisurely breakfast, then stroll into the office to see if any crises happened overnight. You send the phones to voice mail and set about working on the new feature for your company's latest project. You have three glorious uninterrupted hours of work where you can actually accomplish what you set out to do. By the time the kids come home from school, you've met today's milestone and started on the next set, and you can spend some time outside with the kids and your spouse. In the evening while the kids do their homework and your spouse gets some quiet time, you slip back into your office and get a jump on tomorrow's milestones.
Does this sound like science fiction? It's not. This is a current reality for the estimated twenty-eight million people working as part of virtual teams. Contrast that reality with working on-site. When I work on-site these days, I am constantly bombarded by distractions while trying to get work done that requires intense concentration. The phone rings, someone drops by, a fax comes with the secretary, I'm summoned into unplanned and unscheduled meetings, and the day ends with the question, "So what did I do today?" Which reality would make you more productive?
A virtual team is a group of people who, though separated by distance, have a common work objective. These teams exist in large companies with offices around the globe or in start-ups, where everyone works from home offices. What all virtual teams have in common is that they are working on a project, but may not be located in close physical proximity, and they must find ways to communicate, track progress, and manage tasks without being able to physically meet regularly.
How Do They Work?
The effectiveness of a virtual team depends (as in any other kind of organization) on the motivation, commitment, and talent of its members. The prerequisites for success with virtual teams are:
- Clear, manageable objectives. You won't have the physical access to people to remind them of impending deadlines. You can't manage by walking around. There won't be the lunch or water cooler conversations that prevent divergence from project objectives.
- Commitment to necessary resources. The commitment and trust level of your management to the success of your virtual team is essential. You're going to need more hardware/software resources, more senior people, etc. You'll know early on how committed they are by the sign-off of necessary computer, telecom, and server equipment.
- Talen, especially in the management arena. This is no place for despots or tyrants. You have to have mature management and technical personnel, because when you ask people to work on their own, they must be able to deliver on promises without the usual prodding that some talented, but immature, workers need.
You will have all the same problems as a traditional project (and a few more), but you'll get more productivity and more thoughtful work.
A Day in the Life of a Virtual Team
Illustrated below in Figures 1 and 2 is a pretty typical day in the life of one of the virtual software development teams that I've been a part of in the last several years. The team is producing a Palm application with database components and data exchange capability. As you can