CEO lived in Massachusetts, the president worked from Utah, the
engineering team was based in Ohio, and a few others worked out
of their homes. Yet, while Valent
Software’s ten employees never really co-located, they were
able to sell their $700,000 investment and three years of work for
$45 million to a major web portal.
Valent did with a small team scattered across the country is what
many other companies aspire to: virtual work.
beings have always worked and socialized in face-to-face groups.
Now people no longer must be in the same building—never mind on
the same continent—to work together. Like Valent Software, they
belong to virtual teams that transcend distance, time zones, and
the advent of the web, such ways of working were impractical. A
few thousand lines of computer code written in Switzerland in 1989
to help a network of particle
physicists—coupled with unprecedented advances in technology—have
transformed the world.
9:00 to 5:00 office, as we have known it, is more often than not—not.
Many of us attend meetings in our pajamas, talk with people halfway
around the globe, use insomnia to catch up online, worry about head-set
not car-seat comfort, and partner with people we have never—and
may never—meet face-to-face. One-third of the 25,000 residential
dwellings in my city (Newton, Massachusetts) house “white-collar”
businesses and the white-collars themselves are on the express train
to antiquity. What with “casual Fridays” having crept backwards
through the workweek, even suit manufacturers have to update their
first comes to mind when you think of a team? A group of people
working side-by-side, in close proximity to one another—a basketball
or soccer team, perhaps?
worker can be reached by cell phone, pager, email, and fax—but is
often isolated from the rest of the office team and works with people
from other organizations all the time. Whether you are in your own
dining room or basement, a startup or a dorm, a struggling dot.com
or a successful brick and mortar company, chances are that the people
you work with are more than 50 feet away. If this is true, then
distance probably causes you communication problems.
each person, the important distances are the very short ones. How
close people prefer to be for interpersonal interactions varies
by culture—from inches to feet.
far away do people have to be before they need to worry about compensating
for distance? Put another way: How close do you have to be to get
the advantage of being in the same place, or what is the “radius
of collaborative co-location?”
data that MIT Professor Tom
Allen has been compiling for the past several decades shows
that the radius is very small. The probability of communicating
or collaborating more than once a week drops off dramatically if
people are more than the width of a basketball court apart. To get
the benefit of working in the same place, people need to be quite
put this in perspective, think of the people you regularly work
with. Are they all within 50 feet of you? Or are some of your coworkers
a bit more spread out, down the hall, on another floor, in another
building, another company, or perhaps in another city, or even another
the people we work with are no longer within shouting distance.
Any team of more than about 10 or 15 people is, by sheer physical
mass, probably more than 50 feet apart.
distance is another thing. The further apart people are physically,
the more time zones they must cross to communicate. Thus, time becomes
a problem when people not in the same place need some of their activities
to be in sync. The window for routine same-time (synchronous) work
shrinks as more time zones are crossed, closing to effectively zero
when people are on opposite sides of the globe.
not forget, though, that people who work together in the same place
can have problems being in that same place at the same time. Think
about those in sales or consulting who rarely occupy their offices
at the same time. These teams, too, often cross time boundaries
and need to think virtually.
we work across distance, time, and organizational boundaries to
communicate with our co-workers and teammates in new ways. Technology
may extend our communication reach, but organizing to do things
together is only human. The most profound change of the new millennium
is really in the way we’re organized.
ago, societies established the bigger-is-better trend in organizational
design. At the dawn of the Agricultural Era, the average size of
human groups suddenly grew from a multimillion-year-old pattern
of 20 person-camps to farming towns of hundreds and cities of thousands.
Bigger has had a largely uninterrupted run for 12,000 years—until
right now. In a comparative nanosecond of evolutionary time, centralization
and hierarchy have slammed into global limits. We’ve decentralized
our work, and are perpetually re-forming groups.
technologies and computer networks support this pregnant moment.
The Internet and the web, as surprising as it may seem, are bringing
individuals, small groups, and chosen communities back to center
more people interconnect online, they increase their capacity for
both independence and interdependence. Competition and cooperation
both thrive in the new culture. The global Internet fosters numberless
combinations of groups of varying size, sponsoring mass individuality
and massive participation. Cyberspace is a vast new civilization,
containing places of commerce and an already deep social life mirrored
in countless conversations. In time, virtual teams will become nothing
special, but rather the natural way to work.
how does it feel today? Different. It’s a blurry messy world where
everyone is scrambling to catch up.
a networked organization, leaders have to use influence and powers
of persuasion, which is much more complex and much more challenging
than giving orders,” says Phil Carroll, chairman and chief executive
officer at Fluor
Corporation, “Young leaders have the ability to operate in this
new environment. They recognize that they’re not working on the
must think differently about themselves, Carroll says. “You are
not the source of all wisdom.” He calls it an emotional challenge,
“if you are predisposed to want to exercise leadership from the
more authoritarian model. If that’s what you want to be, you’ll
find this other kind of leadership difficult and very frustrating
because at times it’s slower and not as efficient and you don’t
get your way. And for some people that is a problem.”
underlies the years ahead. Online we work through people we trust.
People work together because they trust one another. They make deals,
undertake projects, set goals, and lend one another resources. Teams
with trust converge more easily, organize their work more quickly,
and manage themselves better. Less trust makes it much more difficult
to generate and sustain successful virtual teams.
has always been important for groups. In the work-a-day world of
the Industrial Age, trust was more of a “nice to have” quality than
a “need to have” one. But, times have changed. Virtual teams can
be quicker, smarter, more flexible work groups in a sea of change.
As highly adaptive organizations, these teams can cope with tumultuous
complexity. For them, trust is a “need to have” quality.
daily face-to-face cues, trust is both harder to attain and easier
to lose. Mistrust slips in between the slender lines of long-distance
communication stripped of the nuances of in-person interaction.
Business grinds to a halt when trust breaks down.
builds with the recognition of the contribution that everyone makes,”
president and chief operating officer Hank McKinnell. “If you make
a real contribution, people will trust you.”
is the elixir of group life—the belief, or confidence in a person
or organization’s integrity, fairness, and reliability. This faith
comes from experience, however brief or extensive. The importance
of trust cuts across a team’s life cycle:
A new team requires trust to begin.
It’s the all-purpose grease for the ongoing hard work of the team.
When they’re done, the team leaves trust (or its lack) behind.
As trust accumulates—in
teams, corporations, communities, and nations—it creates a new form
of wealth. In the Network Age, human, social and knowledge capital
are as potent a source of value as land, resources, skills, and
Human capital increases
when more people work together in more places, meeting new challenges
and acquiring new competencies. Social capital accumulates when
virtual team members vastly expand the number and diversity of their
relationships. Because of their physical separation, virtual teams
have an obligation to make knowledge capital explicit and accessible.
Virtual teams stretch
the bounds of human capability, offering value far beyond their
immediate functions: they elongate the reach of social capital outside
their immediate physical locales. Although many of their elements
have ancient roots, today’s virtual teams look out over vistas of
virtual places never before seen by human eyes. They are the wave
of the future, but are here with us today.
How to Launch a
planning is a serial process: People start at the beginning, arrive
at a fixed plan, and then go to work. Awash in the flux and chaos
of change, the method by which a virtual team takes form is not
linear. It cycles through a series of ever-better rapid prototypes
of itself. The team does a mental self-mock-up as it starts, and
then refines itself over time. Ironically, Internet speed requires
more, not fewer, planning orbits. Short effective planning sessions,
early in the life of a virtual team, can establish good habits,
but this requires discipline that many creative people naturally
help you jump start that planning session and launch your virtual
team, here are seven steps:
Create your identity by naming the team.
Draft your mission statement.
Determine key milestones.
Set goals that everyone agrees on.
Identify who needs to be involved.
Establish relationships among members.
Agree on operating protocols.
succeed, the launch team must involve the key people responsible
for implementation and results, which includes sponsors. This is
the moment for sponsors to make a lasting contribution and set the
team for success.
creation of the first rough virtual team plan is a powerful, shared
experience. Connect early and often. From your very first conversations,
be conscious of how much the process is a mix of face-to-face, virtual
real-time (synchronous, like phone), and non-real-time exchanges
(asynchronous, like email).
Face-to-face is the fastest way to build trust, crucial in the early
phases of virtual team life. If face-to-face meetings are too costly,
do the next best thing and invest in telephone or video conference
(synchronous) meetings, or same-time web-based interactive technologies.
Use as many interactive media as the team can handle. And if you
are too global to find same-time windows easily, learn how to hold
asynchronous events using fast-cycle online discussion forums and
you’re off. Plan, participate, and know above all else, you’re not
alone. You’re just a pioneer in a new way to work.
Lipnack is CEO and co-founder of virtualteams,
a Boston-based software company that builds collaborative work environments.
A leading expert on virtual teams, she has worked with companies
around the world to improve their collaborative capabilities. With
industry expert Jeffrey Stamps, she is co-author of six books on
this topic, including Virtual
Teams: People Working Across Boundaries With Technology (John
Wiley & Sons, 2000), from which this article is adapted. Reach
her online at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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