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Updated: November 26, 2011 17:10 IST

Bridge the human connection in virtual world

D. Murali
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As more people use technology and social networks to connect constantly, it is quite possible that upcoming generations are strangers to what a traditional team is, postulates Yael Zofi in ‘A Manager’s Guide to Virtual Teams’ (www.amacombooks.org). In such a scenario, her advice is that it is necessary for companies to begin making conscious, informed choices about what work arrangements are best, rather than passively sit and wait and let things happen. “Although people can work virtually anywhere, anytime, that may not serve a particular business or unit. If companies recognise that the human connection is important, then they need to subscribe to new models. A whole generation is entering this brave new world, and its choices have yet to evolve.”

A clear message in the book is that bridging the human connection in this virtual world is your defining role as a leader. Creating collaboration and enabling leadership across the team is what leading in the twenty-first century is all about, declares Zofi. Gone are the days when staff members could be controlled through coercion and close supervision, she adds. “Dispersed teams call for a new level of trust and transparency, with leaders capable of guiding them to connection and collaboration. It’s up to you to create a sustainable – not situational – set of values that are rooted in the human element.”

VT defined

For starters, the book defines VT or ‘virtual team’ as a team – whether across the street or across the world – with members simultaneously working together to a common purpose, while being physically apart. Clarifying that a virtual team does not always mean individuals work from home, the author points out that many virtual teams consist of employees who work both at home and in small groups at the office, but in different geographic locations and organisational boundaries. She draws attention to the ‘fifty-foot rule’ – whereby after about fifty feet (fifteen metres), it does not matter whether team members are on different floors of the same building or in different countries.

An important section in the book discusses ‘Team code of conduct,’ which is about how the team communicates, on phone, through email, and so forth. “There is a code for acceptable and unacceptable behaviours that guide every aspect of team life. Virtual teams may require more detailed Team Codes than on-site teams because they specify behaviours about the intangibles inherent in virtual situations that are less important when you can walk over to someone’s desk.”

Email etiquette

An essential tool that is fast, efficient, and a major factor in driving the virtual workplace as a viable work arrangement is email, avers the author. She cautions, however, that paying attention to writing an effective email is vital. Advising that the real secret is to put yourself in the place of the person receiving the message, Zofi frets that many writers strive to make their messages as actionable as possible but fail to follow some basic principles.

The section on ‘Tips for writing effective emails’ may seem too elementary but the lessons listed there may be apt for all those who routinely and mindlessly flout the basic rules of email etiquette at the workplace. For instance, the author dins in, “Don’t waste people’s time by copying them on everything to cover your back.” Another suggestion is to briefly state the purpose and action required when forwarding an email.

Also of value are the diktats such as to avoid making jokes or using sarcasm since this might be offensive or easily misunderstood; and to consider whether your reply should be sent to all recipients when you receive an email message as part of a group. “Written communication requires extra care because virtual teams don’t have watercooler interactions to patch things over. Before interpreting something negatively or escalating it, give the person the benefit of the doubt, and refrain from sending an angry email immediately.”

A simple but valuable guidance in the book is to be extra sensitive when sending emails to colleagues who work remotely. A good rule of thumb, as Zofi puts it, is to pick up the phone when in doubt. “And, if you are on the receiving end of a puzzling or troubling email, call your colleague. If you feel irritated, take a deep breath and then dial the number.” For, a short call can save hours of wasted time in writing emails about issues that are better conveyed in telephone conversations, urges Zofi.

Lost riders

A common challenge in a virtual team environment is that of ‘lost riders,’ as the book highlights. “How can you tell if someone is really working? When a team member continually pushes back deadlines, how would you know if the reasons are valid? How long does it take to detect if someone is not fulfilling her responsibilities in a virtual environment? What do you do if someone stops responding to your emails and phone calls, and you cannot stop by her desk? Is this team member lost, missing, or just avoiding you?” Posing these questions, the author informs that the anxiety of many managers is that virtual environment can make it easier for team members to hide, with some members getting ‘lost’ or going missing, taking advantage of the lack of daily oversight.

The first clue, says Zofi, is that deadlines are continually pushed back, and then deliverables are not produced for days, weeks, or months. She counsels that the critical time to notice situations that could lead to potential issues is during the early phase of a new project or when a new member joins the team. “Also, by keeping time lines for deliverables short in the early phases, it is easier to catch problems. In fact, some clients find that short time lines work best throughout the entire life cycle of the project.”

Connection agent

To those leaders who believe their role is to be the ‘agent of change,’ a sobering thought in the book is that such a notion no longer works; because, no one person, regardless of how talented and hardworking, is capable of mastering all that is required of business leadership today, reasons the author. Recounting her experience with a large financial services firm, helping in the rollout of a complex, large-scale IT project, she notes that managers who oversaw successful launches were those who collaborated with individuals outside their own span of control. It was not a matter of understanding what needed to be ‘changed’ and trying to manage that change; their success was directly related to how well they connected with others and their willingness to trust their own team to solve issues, explains Zofi.

The very nature of a dispersed team means that virtual leaders can no longer successfully manage through command-and-control techniques, the author instructs. The different kind of leadership – as the agent of connection – that she describes is about focusing on collaboration by encouraging people to rise above their differences and connect at the human level.

Educative read for managers in any organisation that sets its sights in the future.

**

Tailpiece

“Our new manpower software identifies constraints…”

“That is, cases where there is a shortage?”

“No, cases where the existing people choke the system!”

**

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