Name: Managing Virtual Teams – Robert Rogge, Anna Danes, Silvina Martínez
Superpower:Managing virtual teams
Robert Rogge, Anna Danes, and Silvina Martínez from Managing Virtual Teams discuss distributed teams, the benefits and challenges of remote working, tools, and personality traits.
Listen to the Podcast
Watch the full interview
Many distributed teams work with projects and you know that the project can start and end at a certain point. It’s not like you’re in a lifetime contract. Some projects just come to an end and that would mean that the team will be dissolved or you get to work on a different project with the same company. I think that the people that work remotely know that this happens and they’re okay with it because they also like the change, starting with a new project, and not having to work with the same thing every day or every month. – Silvina Martínez
Elinor: We’re interviewing Managing Virtual Teams. We have a company that it sells, manages itself virtually with Silvina in Argentina and Robert and Anna in Europe today. So we started our multipart interview segment surveying different models for remote teamwork including the telecommuting model. And now we’re going to be talking about teams that are in different offices in different parts of the world so partially remote teams. So in this realm, you’ve worked with HP and in the HP structure, parts of the team are in different locations 3 people in Barcelona, 2 people in Singapore, 2 in California. I was wondering, Anna, if you can tell us how you can have a successful and productive team across time zones like that.
Anna: Well, first of all, you can because a lot of people think, “Oh, if everybody’s scattered throughout the world, it’s impossible to have a team that functions, that works, that meets objectives.” You can. You just need to work hard on it. We talked about company culture so I think we covered that a little bit. The HR team needs to also make an effort. Robert also, he talked a little bit about the characteristics that these workers need to have. And the company itself also needs to make an effort. There needs to be very clear and specific goals that people need to meet. There needs to be a feeling of a team. The people inside this team that are in Barcelona, these are in California, wherever, they need to feel like they belong to a team that they have a common objective. And you can do that with human interaction of course so weekly meetings or even daily meetings, they need to happen but also through the processes that the company has created. So there need to be places where you go and report your work moments where you get together with your coworkers, and you show what you have done, and you can very clearly see all the steps that lead you to the goal that you as a team have. So that’s something that’s very important to have: goals, clear expectations to report correctly. And this is like the setup, right? But there is a work that needs to be done constantly inside the team and the people in the team and the managers especially need to be hypercritical on what’s going on, why it’s not working, let’s change it, let’s modify it. So there needs to be a constant evaluation of not only the objectives that the team has but also how are the relations going, where do we need to improve. Sorry? Elinor, I think you’re muted.
Robert: I think you’re muted.
Elinor: Sorry about that. Thanks. So the inspect and adapt loops, you’re saying, need to be tight and small enough so that people are able to improve along the way.
Elinor: Very rapidly. Okay, carry on.
Anna: I wanted to illustrate this with an example that happened. And it’s probably something that happens very often. This was a team that was in Barcelona and they had some team members somewhere else in Spain. So there was no language barrier. There was no culture barrier. But for some reason, the team that was outside of Barcelona was doing their job very well but during meetings, they were not proposing anything. They were just not saying anything, very quiet, just taking orders from their team members who were equal. They were exactly in the same team with the same hierarchy. So how do you think that? Well, first you need to find out if there is a problem. Are they having difficulties with something? But it seemed like there were no difficulties because they were doing their work, they were performing great. It was just in the meetings they were not being active or proposing or nothing. So the only way in this case would be to force, force them to organize to the meetings, force them to get more involved during the meetings, ask them direct questions, not only “Do you have any question?” No, “What questions do you have?” and try to change a little bit the way that you communicate with them and try to get them more involved. So that’s just an example but I think it shows you how the manager needs to be constantly aware of these little things that may not interrupt the overall performance of the team but in the long run, they might. So the manager needs to be constantly active and thinking, and proposing, and trying to improve.
Elinor: Force is a strong word there. Perhaps there is a different way?
Anna: Okay, native English speakers, help me find a better one.
Elinor: [Inaudible 6:03] invite. We find in the actual community that coercion and force is not necessarily the way to engage but an invitation that people feel motivated to respond to might get the results that you’re talking about.
Robert: [Inaudible 6:25]
Anna: I absolutely agree with you. Absolutely, absolutely, I didn’t just use the right word.
Elinor: An example of language. Absolutely. So, Robert, can you tell us some of the most common problems that these kinds of teams encounter and how your counter them?
Robert: Right. Well, I guess, today we really wanted to focus on the recruitment thing and the communication thing. And again, a common problem is that in the day to day work, people maybe have a hard time communicating with remote teams. So an example of that like the most basic example might be writing an email because a lot of the stuff is taking place in email too. And if you have somebody who was sending an email that is in like one gigantic paragraph, like a paragraph this long like, “Hi! [Paragraph] Goodbye,” this is maybe not the ideal scenario for your day to day working communications and we think that one of the best ways to solve some of the day to day problems that come up with communicating with remote teams is to make sure they recruit people that are smart and natural communicators if you can. Now you can supplement your worker’s communication skills with courses and training which, in fact, something that Managing Virtual Teams does. But you can also try to head off a lot of those problems by just getting people into your company and trying to get talent and paying attention to how good communicators these people really are because like when you’re talking about training people, when you’re talking, you’re really just supplementing the natural or the learned talent that the people have when they’re already working, right? So by focusing on or asking that your human resources department to focus on some of these characteristics you need specifically for virtual teams is a really good way to start off on the right foot and just getting the right people can correct a lot of problems for you that you might have down the road if you’re not paying attention to what sorts of people you want to have in your company.
Elinor: That makes sense. How have you seen the cultural differences across the different parts of the world, different time zones play out and resolve in company culture?
Silvina: Well, I would like to answer something about that topic. We’ve noticed that some cultures have a hard time saying no or they’re not comfortable asking questions so the results are that the company’s objectives do not get met. There’s an example that I would like to mention. I worked with a team leader that had engineers spaced through the globe. One of her engineers was a girl in India that was very, very good at her work but she was new and she didn’t want to ask specific questions about the project so she wasn’t doing exactly her job and was jeopardizing the entire team’s work. In this case, we believe that the solution is to explain with a lot of examples saying that it’s a good thing to ask questions if you don’t understand or if you don’t know how to do something. And it’s good for the team leader as well as the team. And as I mentioned earlier, by replacing this phrase “you have to ask questions” with another sentence like “we all need to learn, we all need to ask something that we don’t know how to do” so encouraging the other person to ask questions and not to feel judged by doing so. And what’s really important in this case is the company’s culture because if the culture of the company is open to questions instead of punishing employees who ask them, then the team will be more open to express their doubts. So in order to do so, we think that they need to have open communication channels and you have to make them feel that you are always available for them even if it’s via a chat or email that you are there for them. And there’s another good phrase that I’m going to mention, not saying, “Do you have any other questions?” but “What questions do you have for me?” so this means that you are open to the dialogue and you are not just saying what needs to be done but there are always some questions that can also change what you thought what the project was going to be like because then the team can change some parts of the project with an in interesting question.
Elinor: That’s a very specific and great opportunity for input for questions from “Do you have any?” to “What questions do you have?” Thank you for that. So we’ve covered partially remote teams. There’s one further model that we have yet to explore and that’s teams that are crafted as distributed teams from scratch, one of the newer models. Shall we go forward and talk about that now in this interview or save it for another time?
Robert: That’s up to you. You’re the interview leader. I think we have time to keep going if you want to.
Ellinor: I’m inviting us to continue, absolutely. So when companies start outsourcing some of their tasks, they start having part time or even full time parts of their company in other locations, based on your experience, Anna, are there main challenges that a company might find? Do you have a specific company to use as an example of someone who’s done this particularly well or overcome challenges?
Anna: Yes, with Ricaris, [inaudible 14:40] which is like the son or the daughter, not sure, of Ricaris which is an outsourcing company and we helped during five years within helping companies deal with their outsourcing work and we have found that some of the problems that are more typical first of all are the technical issues. So companies outsourcing already or is starting to outsource, and there are so many technical problems: the VPNs don’t work or they are not using them properly, the channels of communication are not clear, there’s not a CRM where you can put all the information, it’s a mess. So I would advice that the first thing would be to work on the technical part and to set it up, think about all the different things that can happen and then after that, have a team that does maintenance and does improvements, but the technical part needs to be clear. If you don’t have a good back office to work with the outsourcing company that you’re working with, that will generate so much frustration in both parts and it will probably end up with a broken agreement because that’s why they’re very, very basics. And the second problem that I have seen is the lack of trust. We’re talking about companies who are already working in-house, they’re working very well. They might have hundreds of workers but they’ve never outsourced any of their tasks while somebody new arrives in the office and says, “Well, the non-core tasks, we should be outsourcing them so we can focus on what we do well.” And this may generate a lack of trust towards the new team. The new team is not in the office or they only come every now and then. And it’s probably a lack of communication so it’s very important that both parts work on knowing exactly what the other one wants, reporting it properly, and having meetings face to face, or via video conference. It doesn’t matter. But having a lot of communication to find out what’s going on and where we might be missing each other. Let me see. I wrote down some stuff here. Yeah, I think basically, I covered two situations that are the main problems.
Elinor: Is there a company that has done this particularly well, overcoming problem?
Anna: Yes. I think we started our work with a company in Spain called Emagister and we’ve been working with them for a long time and we’ve really achieved this communication very well and this partnership idea. And it’s great because when a company starts outsourcing, they realize, “Wow! Now I have more time to those things that are core for me that are really important and they’ve really spread out the work really fast.” So then similar companies started thinking, “Well, maybe I need to outsource. So maybe there is no reason to have everybody inside the office. Maybe I can have some tasks be done outside the office that will be good for my economy and it’s also going to be good for people that have been working here.” So it’s been a very positive experience, yeah.
Elinor: So there’s a phrase that comes up in your articles about the need to overcommunicate and I wonder, Silvina, if you can talk about that term and its importance in this.
Silvina: Yeah. Well actually in the past, you could find a lot of articles saying that overcommunication wasn’t good for your company. But when working with virtual teams, we think that it’s the complete opposite. First of all, overcommunication doesn’t mean that you’re constantly talking to your team or sending a thousand emails per day. It means that you’re making an extra effort in explaining things working with the training that you’re providing, rewarding. And it’s actually just very different to face to face communication. You tend to overcommunicate because you lack that type of communication. So what we refer to is that you need to make as we were talking before, you need to make the team feel that you are there for them and that the communication channels are always open. And with communication, we are not referring to our daily communication only but we think that it’s important to communicate with new team members for example and you need to for example arrange an introductory meeting when someone’s joined in the teams so that people can get to know each other before talking about the project or the job itself. And that is also part of the communication.
Elinor: Orientation and onboarding and that whole phase of [crosstalk 21:27].
Silvina: Yeah. For the new person to get to know the company and the culture and everybody that’s going to be working with him or her. And one of the things that we most care about is being polite with all the communications that we exchange especially with way of communication. I think that you can express the same thing in a million ways and just adding something personal or cheerful sentence to an email can make a lot of difference when you’re working with a virtual team and that’s something that we always try to do, and of course, having regular meetings just to analyze the improvements of the project.
Elinor: So some people have that natural skill at adding warmth to their online communications but you’re saying it can also be taught and modeled and encouraged and that that’s a good thing. And it strikes me too that since people learn in different ways, maybe part of overcommunicating is saying the same thing in a few different ways so that you might be hitting more of your team’s different working and learning styles and making them feel spoken to in their language. Great! Yes, Anna, please.
Anna: Can I add something?
Anna: We have to take into account that a lot of times, we’re not using our body language when we’re communicating with our team members so we really need to make up for that. We need to try to find a balance because body language is so important and you see me all the time moving my hands, right? So I need to make up for every hand movement in my emails. I really think that it’s so important in our daily lives and it cannot be just forgotten in emails for example.
Elinor: Well that sounds like the next stage of emoticons, since emoticons only have the faces, is to have a full body instead of gestures.
Robert: Yes, get some hands going on.
Elinor: Why not? Let’s work on that, couple of designers, developers.
Anna: Yeah, good idea.
Robert: Yeah, yeah, yeah, maybe some emoticons with like in there.
Elinor: Yeah, two emotions at the same time smiling through tears. Anyway, thanks so much. And Robert, what are your final thoughts on the subject before we sign off?
Robert: Oh, thanks, yes. Just again about the overcommunicating thing, in our experience with our customers, we’ve seen that a lot of times, it’s the managers are sort of doing this overcommunicating thing that we’ve been discussing here and following certain guidelines and rule about how to best communicate especially via email. People who work for that manager with that manager, a lot of those people are going to just pick it up from the manager but not all the people. And so that makes it kind of tricky. But having a manager who’s doing the right things really helps because people will pick it up but not all of them will pick it up. Some of them just won’t pick it up but it really helps. A lot of the things I think we’ve been talking about start with the manager and then sort of work their way down.
Elinor: Well listening to you, I’m going to coin a phrase here. Super is a prefix that [inaudible 25:40] which is using all of those extras and building those into the remote communications but it seems to connote adding and going above in a way instead of being excessive. Not excessive, just super.
Robert: You said super what?
Robert: Okay, good, good. Right when you get to communicating, it just went “poop” kind of. Supercommunicating, yeah exactly.
Elinor: That’s right.
Robert: Yeah, yeah, this is good. It kind of sounds like superconducting, I don’t know.
Elinor: Yeah, building in those extras. So thank you all three of you for being supercommunicators today with us. And I look forward to the other half of collaboration superpowers, Lisette Sutherland, jumping into our next conversations. So have a wonderful time managing virtual teams. We’ll talk to you again soon!
Robert: You too!
Anna: Thank you.
Silvina: Thank you.