Virtual teams hold great promise and when successful, they enable people to work together regardless of location and organizations to extract the collective knowledge of widely dispersed employees. In order to tap into this potential, enterprises are increasingly using geographically distributed teams as a key part of their business strategy.
However, they come with their own unique challenges, especially for leaders whose previous experience has been mainly with collocated teams. Various studies have shown that it is more difficult to get virtual teams to bond, harder for informal leaders to emerge, tougher to create genuine dialogue, and easier for misunderstandings to escalate.
De Piante addressed common misconceptions associated with virtual teams saying, “There is a myth that you cannot have good relationships when working virtually. I think you do a better job maintaining relationships once you have and know how to use the technology that allows you to do so.”
He disagreed with the opinion that working on virtual teams will adversely affect your career, citing that his success was built on his ability to manage virtual teams. According to De Piante, managing a virtual team comes down to two things: communication and leadership.
Groupthink, the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group in a way that discourages creativity or individual responsibility, is something that can also be avoided with virtual teams according to De Piante.
“When working in collocated teams, there is pressure to agree with someone even if you don’t. The distance given by virtual teams helps stop groupthink.”
If the virtual team is global (as is often the case), leaders face additional complexities — scheduling meetings around international times zones and holidays and conducting meetings in a language that for many participants is their secondary one. Leaders also must deal with an array of cultural issues that can include differences in business protocol, decision-making, dealing with authority, the concept of time, negotiation styles, and the emotional reactions allowed – or expected – in a business environment.
Mirella Conti, Vice Director of PMI-NIC, also spoke about the challenges that project managers face while working in a global setting.
“Most of the problems I have had arose due to cultural differences,” she said. “Sometimes we have people who do not interrupt with their thoughts or make comments because it is customary to wait until someone finishes to voice their opinions. Other times, they do not say anything at all.”
Nevertheless, the speakers agreed that virtual teams are the future and that if you are not working in a virtual team now, chances are that you eventually will. It is a reality of working in an increasingly globalized world, with technology constantly evolving and social networking becoming more important in how businesses interact with each other as well as their consumers.
For more information on the Project Management Institute- Northern Italy Chapter, visit http://www.pmi-nic.org/