Five Ways to Eliminate the “Stepchild Syndrome” From Telework and Virtual Teams
The benefits of virtual work extend to the workers, the company, and society in general. As a result, virtual work in all its forms is becoming increasingly popular.
While virtual work has clear benefits it also has significant challenges.
For example, it is important to know how to conduct the activities of a virtual team in a way that will avoid the emergence of the stepchild syndrome.
Many studies – and a host of real world experiences – tell us that it is much more difficult to build relationships among the members of a virtual team than it is among the members of a team that are co-located and meet face-to-face (FTF). It’s tough to build trust in a team; it’s even more tough when the team members rarely meet FTF.
In a virtual environment it is much easier for distrust to develop and for misunderstandings and misconceptions to thrive. Teams that allow this type of distrust to fester and spread will be at a great disadvantage to those teams that are sensitive to these issues and take explicit actions to prevent them.
For a Global Virtual Team it is often the case that some percentage of the team members think of themselves as the local component of the team. The local group will likely include those that are located at the company headquarters; specifically, those that work and meet FTF with the boss. Those from other locations, along with mobile workers, tend to be thought of as a remote group.
One of the most insidious forms of dysfunction occurs when the team members begin to believe that only the local members are considered to be the real team. All the remote members begin to feel that they are being treated as stepchildren; important and real, but not quite as important or quite as real as those members who are at the favored locations or who work in favored organizations. (Note: no offense intended to actual stepchildren! )
Once this situation develops it is very difficult to reverse and is very damaging to the effectiveness of the team.
Here are five steps you can take to prevent the spread of the stepchild syndrome:
1. Establish explicit awareness and commitment in the senior leadership team -
The local/remote viewpoint that I’ve described above is typical but definitely not desirable.
The foundation for success in a virtual team is for the senior leadership to actually think one team and to be aware of the grave risks associated with thinking of the team based on the categories I’ve described above.
They must be aware of the possibility of the stepchild syndrome forming and they must understand the damage that it can do. Most importantly, they must be committed to take actions to prevent it – even if those actions include acts that seem unnatural and counter-intuitive.
2. Establish culture-sensitive ground rules -
For the overall team to operate as one cohesive unit it is important to establish operational rules that bind the team together.
These rules must be sensitive to the cultures that are represented on the team. For example, the team leadership should be aware of the timing of local holidays and important seasons. Don’t schedule meetings or task due dates to occur on any holiday associated with any culture represented in the group. It is particularly important to avoid scheduling meetings on holidays associated with the so-called ”remote” team members.
3. Time Zone Equality -
Time zones are the bane of virtual team builders. There have been huge advances in the tools that help virtual teams be effective but in the end there are always issues associated with time zones. When virtual teams include members from around the globe then in the end someone is going to end up attending meetings at odd hours. They key principle is that the team components needs to share the pain. The odd-hour duty should rotate around the various locations. In particular, it is disastrous to require the “remote” team members to take the odd-hour duty most or all of the time.
4. Major events must be all-inclusive -
Any events that are intended to be team-wide need to include all members from all locations. This will require some additional work on the part of event planners but it is key. Nothing sends a stronger stepchild message than to hold events where the three “local” locations have food and party favors while the two “remote” locations do not. Beyond providing food to all locations it is also great to connect the party by video conference if possible.
5. One Inclusive Meeting -
This point is both the most important and the most counterintuitive. Nothing telegraphs leadership’s TRUE feelings about team equality more than the way in which virtual meetings are conducted.
The norm today is for virtual team meetings to be held in ways that are obviously inequitable. In the typical situation there are meeting rooms booked for the real team where the members meet FTF, write comments on whiteboards, and talk among themselves. The rooms used by real team members are often interconnected using advanced video conferencing and telepresence systems.
Meanwhile, the stepchildren join the meeting by calling in on a phone using a bridge number. The meeting is conducted as a FTF meeting from the viewpoint of the real team members but much of the content and communication is not available to the stepchildren. The result is that the stepchildren will likely be missing information that they need to do their jobs and they will not receive the same level of visibility and attention as the real members. Emergence of the stepchild syndrome in this situation is inevitable.
Taking appropriate action in this area requires some counterintuitive thinking; specifically, the mainline team needs to act in a way that will improve the effectiveness of the overall team, even if it makes their own interaction less efficient.
To only way to eliminate the local/remote concept, and to avoid inducing the stepchild syndrome, is to conduct the meetings under the assumption that everyone is virtual.
Think of the analogy of an international organization whose headquarters is, by necessity, located in some specific country. For the international organization to operate effectively the “host” nation must be treated as just “one of the member nations” during ongoing organizational operations.
There are several specific actions that will help to establish an everyone is virtual policy:
- Don’t use special equipment unless it is available to everyone on the overall team. Video conferencing systems can be very useful but if the intent is to use location-based video conferencing for standard team meetings then make sure that every participating site has the equipment available. Even if you have video conferencing don’t use it in meetings that include sites that don’t have the equipment.
- Don’t include a bridge number on meetings where video conferencing is deemed essential.
- The most counterintuitive point: Don’t book any rooms for meetings that are conducted using web conferencing; encourage all team members – even those in the headquarters location – to attend the meeting from their desks or mobile locations. The result is that everyone has a shared experience in the meeting. No information is communicated through limited side discussions and no group is perceived as having privileged access.
It is possible to avoid the stepchild syndrome if, and only if, management understands the importance of having a one team attitude and takes actions to make that attitude the norm for the team.
How To: Five Ways to Eliminate the “Stepchild Syndrome” From Telework and Virtual Teams | Working Nowhere