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Wednesday, 12 September 2012

virtual team management | Working Nowhere

Five Tips For Dealing With The Number One Issue in Global Virtual Teams: When Are You?

Virtual Teams are rising in response to the earth growing flatter.
In particular, the growth of internet-based tools for virtual work has driven the growth of Global Virtual Teams (GVTs) around the world.  In today’s business environment it is very common for major enterprises to employ GVTs that include team members from many different countries that are scattered around the globe.  In this case most of the team members are, in effect, telecommuting all of the time.
There are a variety of challenges associated with teams of this nature.  A great deal has been written about the challenges that result from a lack of shared language and culture.  It is also difficult to gain full efficiency when teams are never able to meet face-to-face (FTF)
These are important issues but in my experience, after managing GVTs for a good part of two decades, there is one clear challenge that stands out from all the others as being the Number One problem:  Differences in Time Zones.
Huge progress is being made in providing tools that make it possible to conduct virtual work that is increasingly like “the real thing.”  Given these rapid advancements the answer to “where are you?” is increasingly moot.
But in spite of the “mootness” of that answer there is one question that still burns bright.  ”When are you?” is the question of the day for GVTs.
The importance of this question grows with the increase in the separation of time zones.  Operating within a three-time-zone difference – as is the case in most of the US – is challenging but manageable.  The real issue arises when the team is separated by double-digit time zones.
The reality is that this situation is quite common.  For example, a US technology company may have development in the US and India while its customer base and production is located in China, Japan, and other areas of the Far East.  Given this situation there are very few hours in which all team members are within their “normal waking hours.”  The result is either that certain team members end up continuously working very extended hours or critical meetings simply don’t occur.
All of this raises the question, “What do we do about time zone differences?”
Here are five tips for dealing with this challenge:
1.  Minimize connections and dependencies –
Dependencies are the enemy.  Whenever there are multiple, distributed organizations working on a joint project it is important to keep each local team concentrated on as few focus areas as possible.  It is important to have a “distant” team work on “all the pieces of a few things” rather than a “few pieces of all the things” even if this would not be the most effective arrangement for a team that was colocated.  Eliminating connections and dependencies is key to maintaining maximum scheduling and operational flexibility.
2.  Make “time zone coalescence” the number one organizing principle -
Keeping tasks grouped within specific time zones should be the number one organizing principle for any GVT that has wide time zone gaps.  This is counter-intuitive given the importance of many other organizing principles but it is critical to the success of GVTs.  Failure to follow this principle may result in having team members who are exhausted and a lack of critical communication that results from the fact that the team members dread going to “yet another late night meeting.”
3.  Structure tasks to keep independent efforts going around the clock –
It is possible to turn the time zone separations into a feature rather than a bug.  To turn a negative into a positive it is important to structure the work such that independent teams are working in their own time zones to take the “next step” for something that was completed previously by the team in the far time zone.  Examples of this approach include the possibility of having a software development team in one hemisphere and a test team in the other hemisphere.  The development team builds new software while the test team sleeps and the test teams checks out the new software while the development team sleeps.
4.  Set boundaries on meeting times - 
In most cases even if you structure the tasks as effectively as possible there will still be times where it is necessary to hold joint meetings at odd hours – or at last at hours that are odd to one side or the other.  The key point in this case is to be aware of the time zone issue and set up explicit boundaries in regard to meeting times.  For example, make sure that meetings are not routinely held only at times that are friendly to the dominate team and make sure that it is not the normal working situation for people to work very long hours on a routine basis.  This situation normally occurs where Team1  meets very early in the day to accommodate the Team2 time zone, works during the normal day with Team1, and then meets again with Team2 at a very late hour.  Allowing such situations to continue as an accepted practice is a recipe for disaster.
5.  Write it down -
Maintaining good documentation is critical for GVTs.  Many odd-hour meetings occur simply to allow someone to gather information that should have been recorded in a simple document.

virtual team management | Working Nowhere

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