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HR? Virtual office team doesn't need one

By Shyamal Majumdar in Mumbai
Last updated on: October 04, 2007 09:54 IST
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This is one organisational structure where the traditional HR models or paradigms are irrelevant. The reason is simple: conventional organisational hierarchies have no meaning in a team where the members hardly ever meet face-to-face. Also, given the high time-to-market pressures, these teams often need to be set up fast, and are disbanded even faster.

Yet, organisations all over the world are increasingly depending on such multi-lingual 'virtual' teams to achieve business goals. As companies have gone horizontal, they no longer have the luxury of collocation. Today,  most products are developed and manufactured across boundaries, time zones, cultures and enterprises. As a result, the fundamental nature of teamwork is undergoing revolutionary changes, with companies getting networked and working through joint ventures and strategic alliances.

A typical virtual team could look like this: the team leader lives in Hyderabad, his deputy works from London, the production team is based in Malaysia, the marketing men are stationed across the world and a few others work out of their homes.

So how do companies make sure that the team functions seamlessly? Cutting edge technology is one solution and several companies are coming up with innovative measures. For example, Accenture's virtual collaborative software design extends the traditional notion of a video conference to an eye-to-eye interaction between users and virtual work objects. Projection technologies help to create the illusion that the users are on either side of a window, while visualisation and touch-screen technologies turn that window into a collaborative workspace.

But technology can solve only one part of the problem, as 'managing  without walls' isn't easy. Relatively routine tasks, such as scheduling a meeting, become complex and fraught with interpersonal friction when one person's workday begins when another is sitting down to dinner or is sound asleep.

When key team members from various functions sit next to each other all day, information transfer is frequent. Formal meetings keep the project on track and establish goals and commitments, while informal meetings around the coffee table allow people to build trust and teamwork and to discuss ideas or get help with problems.

Thus, the key challenge for HR in making virtual teams work is this: when people who are supposed to work together can't see or talk to each other conveniently, a sense of isolation grows. This sense of isolation may lead people to feel that they are left out, not getting enough information or not being told the true story of what is going on. That is why Wipro has developed a regular Meet-the-People programme which is attended by every virtual team member. The company also has a 'war room' -- a virtual space where team members located in different physical locations collaborate on a real-time basis in order to achieve a common goal.

HR experts of companies that have institutionalised virtual teams say such teams need to be led with a level of professionalism and expertise much higher than in a traditional team. This is because virtual team leaders rarely have any sort of supervisory power over team members and have to rely on influence and inspiration. To counter the absence of togetherness, the team leaders have  to set specific outcome-based challenges. For example, while a 'physical' team leader can take the route of 'we need to develop a plan for improving customer satisfaction', the virtual leader has to clearly state his goals in no uncertain terms: 'we need to eliminate all late deliveries within 90 days'.

A corporate reorganisation at Microsoft created a virtual team that needed to develop a new product offering. The team spanned four locations in different time zones, each contributing to the product's development. Disparities in company size and corporate cultures were among the  immediate challenges the team faced. In addition to variations in languages, and diverse business structures, the number and structure of team intranet sites and multiple approaches to communication and collaboration varied from location to location prior to the reorganisation.

Content that team members from one location defined as out-dated or inconsequential was considered valuable to teams from other locations. The result of the reorganisation was a virtual team with disparate work processes. Thus, the team needed a way to collaborate across disparate locations, cultures and work processes.

Technology wasn't a problem for Microsoft and the company used that in countless creative ways to improve communication among the team members. For, the principles of managing virtual teams are not much different from the principles of managing anybody or anything well. Communication is the key -- more so, when the team is dispersed in different corners of the  globe and physical proximity is absent.

Here's what an innovative team leader did with his virtual team. Since he couldn't have regular lunch or coffee breaks with his virtual team, the leader provided a novel mechanism for such informal interaction. He had virtual pizza parties: send pizza to each location at the same time, and get together in an internet chat session or conference call to gab.

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Shyamal Majumdar in Mumbai
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