The Virtues of Virtual Teams

virtual team


Today, globalization of the marketplace continues to become more and more widespread. A growing number of companies not only interact with suppliers, vendors and customers abroad but also extend outside of national borders themselves. As a result, many employees are asked to work closely with coworkers they have never met and will likely never meet in person. In his HBR blog “Virtual Teams can Outperform Traditional Teams“, Keith Ferazzi discusses three key advantages enjoyed by virtual teams.

For starters, he notes that virtual teams can pull together experts from any location. This is increasingly important for large multinational corporations that may have top talent spread around the world. Secondly, he notes that many teams have used a “follow the sun” strategy where the members in one portion of the world leave follow up tasks for the members who will come in after they’re done for the day. Finally, they are often quite diverse which allows the team to understand how their results may be received by customers and clients around the world.

I found the second point particularly interesting because I believe that team members scattered in different time zones around the world is commonly perceived as an obstacle to overcome. Communication options can be limited in these instances. When an urgent issue arises towards the end of the work day in Chicago, the expert in London may already be sleeping. I don’t interact with anyone outside the United States in my current role, but I’ve experienced delays in communication just from the two hour difference between Chicago and Los Angeles if I’m looking for an answer first thing in the morning.

I feel like a “follow the sun” team would require a good deal of structure in their communication and planning. It sounds nice to leave work for the next geographic team to complete, but if they don’t understand what they’re being asked to do the work will either be carried over for clarification or completed incorrectly. While e-mail and other forms of online messaging are likely to be the primary method of communication for these teams, there will likely be times where conference calls or live video conferencing are preferable to get things resolved quickly. In many cases, one or more participants will be on early in the morning or late at night, which could easily hinder attentiveness. This could also quickly become a sore spot if the employees in one location feel like they are carrying the brunt of the burden in accommodating the schedule difficulties. I also feel like it would be easy for team members to perceive a disparity in communication if the project manager interacts in person with some of the members and only through online communication with others. It would definitely take discipline to keep everyone fully in the loop.

I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who is on a team with coworkers abroad. Has the experience been frustrating and time consuming, enlightening and productive or somewhere in between?

7 thoughts on “The Virtues of Virtual Teams

  1. Lane, this article really hit home for me. I’m working on several projects with team members abroad, in both the UK as well as India. Communication is a key in working with the team members abroad. At my organization, we ensure there is clear communication between all parties, through conference calls, emails, Skype, etc. I find the experience to be somewhat in between frustrating and enlightening. It’s frustrating in that the coordination required for a conference call with India is especially difficult and requires me to be on a call later in the evening, when the last thing I’d like to be doing is working. The UK is a little different, in that if we have a morning conference call, it is their afternoon/early evening, and it’s a little easier. On the other hand, it’s very enlightening, in that we get a whole different vantage point that could meet our customers needs abroad!

  2. Hi Lane- I recently posted about a VERY similar topic! I currently work on a virtual team that consists of a few members located in India. The way our work has been structured is that I am responsible for completing a task and my counterparts in India are responsible for double-checking it (tasks require a lot of manual data entry that often requires 2 sets of eyes). While there is a delay in timing (for ex: when I complete a request on a Friday afternoon I might not hear back on it until later in the weekend) that delay is built into our overall processes. I would never ask an India team member to complete a time-sensitive request because I know there is a time delay. So while this doesn’t exactly provide a solution to your problem, I’ve seen outsourcing work first-hand because it was baked into the process from the get-go. Great topic!

  3. This is a great topic Lane. I work daily on projects involving participants from all areas of the US, Europe, India and Australia. It requires a lot of coordination and patients. I know when I first started working on these global initiatives; it was hard to overcome the different conference call times, accents and interpretations of the same message. When traveling and interacting with folks, I was reminded that everyone struggles with these same things. It is only through the relationships you build with people that allow you and the team to become more efficient and effective. I have made a deliberate effort to reach out to folks on the teams in situations outside of the formal calls. I get to know them and ask how they are doing. We have developed a rapport that helps with better communication and understanding. We are all told communication is 80% non-verbal so e-mail alone doesn’t work. It’s our responsibility to build these relationships because the experience from around the world is extremely enlightening.

  4. When outsourcing work, a virtual team can often times be a big advantage. A good friend of mine is a photographer for a jewelry store. She works with virtual vendors that are located across the world. If her team is unable to retouch a photograph for a time-sensitive project during the work day, they can send the images after hours to their vendor. When they return to work the next morning the photographs are ready to go for a fraction of the price that it may cost to have internal employees complete the same task. It is a small but rapidly growing company so this has proven to be a great solution for my friend.

  5. I personally have to work with virtual teams on a daily basis as this is becoming the norm within the financial sector. The term “chasing the sun” is becoming common place as firms start to strategically plan out the locations of their various processes in relation to the users of data. A perfect example would be someone in India performing basic level of tasks to support team members in London or Chicago. These lower cost centers are starting to define their advantages as well as their disadvantages and firms are working these factors into their plans. From my experience, the virtual team can have benefits and terrible shortcomings. It is great to be able to come into work in the morning and find that many of the tasks that support my daily routine have been completed and allow me to focus on issues that are of higher importance. This clearly helps me reduce my workload and tackle issues that require significantly higher levels of knowledge and experience.

    The real disadvantages that occur with virtual teams are that you loose the ability to easily interact with these individuals as well as you loose the ability to quickly move new processes into place and transfer knowledge directly. My firm is continually flying people from Chicago and London to Bangalore to help train individuals on new processes. Additionally, there is a time lag that occurs in the resolution of issues once these processes are fully migrated out of high cost center locations. As an example, I just cannot walk over to my partner in Bangalore and explain why something is going wrong.

    Finally, I feel there are some disadvantages based upon cultural differences that can occur which will affect both expectations and quality of output. If all members of the team do not understand each other, there is a significant level of potential risk that is introduced into the environment.

    1. There has been several great comments about virtual teams. Base on an article by Erran Carmel on tactical approaches to virtual teams. He discussed three tactical solutions, tactic one talked about reducing intensive collaboration which means that teams on each side should work on a task to completion before passing it on to the next geographical location for additional work. Tactic two, discussed reducing cultural distance by using cultural liaison and people that understands the cultural issues on both sides. Lastly, tactic three was about reducing temporary distance by passing task to locations within overlapping time zone for working hours. For example, passing task to Brazil from US works very well because the time difference is only 3 hours versus India with 11 hours time difference.

  6. I agree and support everything said above. I work with teams of people from all over the world in many different countries, cultures, and contexts and see the benefits of worldwide collaboration daily. That said, there is almost no worse feeling than being woken up by a phone call at 2:30am Saturday morning by a co-worker who desperately needs your help for the next two and a half hours.

    Emergencies happen, so do client meltdowns. Big, global companies using virtual teams just mean they can happen in Seoul and be resolved by someone in L.A. at anytime of the day.

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