Collaborating in Virtual Teams


(Crossposting from Berlin Change Days)

Ralf Groetker, who will host a session on Dialogue Mapping during the Berlin Change Days 2014 has suggested a virtual conversation which will serve as an input to his session. Everybody is invited to contribute – even if you can’t make it to the BCD14. Here is the case study he provides:

NewVenture, a Frankfurt-based company with 750 employees, is planning to start a new product line. Management is discussing whether additional 50 employees should be hired and put to work in newly rented office space, or if some kind of flexible work arrangement should be made, allowing the prospective employees to work from their home office. One extreme scenario under consideration is to employ freelancers from all over the world, organized in distributed teams, for the new product line.

Among the Frankfurt staff, these plans evoke mixed reactions. Some of those who are commuting large distances to come to their workplace every day are enthusiastic about the experiment – hoping that they themselves will someday be allowed to work from home. Others are afraid that the replacement of real face-to-face communication which enables spontaneous collaboration would inevitably cause working in distributed teams to fail. This fear is not shared by all, though. Using digital tools to organize work and to structure communication in virtual environment is seen by some as much more effective as spending much of the working time in meetings.

What advice would you give?

• Will virtual teams ever be able to replace old fashioned communication culture in organizations?

• What are the greatest challenges of working with distributed teams?

• What could a facilitator do to make working with distributed teams a success?

We asked a couple of people for their comment.

Invited comment from Marcella Bremer (The Netherlands):

Virtual teams are a challenge – but it can be done. For me, the key conditions to replacing old fashioned communication and creating a common culture are visibility/energy and values/criteria. Compared to “old fashioned” teams in one building, the virtual team needs conscious efforts to be built and maintained by all team members.

Visibility/energy: People must be able to literally SEE it each other to feel connected, start to trust each other and get cues from non-verbal communication, and thus a sense of who the other person is, how they do their work and what they deliver.

Virtual teams seem to work less well if the digital tools allow for exchanging documents and emails only. Seeing each other’s faces and hearing their voices, as is possible on Skype, Hangout and teleconferencing systems is important. Digital tools can convey information, but to create a common culture and work well together, you need to exchange energy. The best way to do so is in person, but if that can be done only twice a year (for instance) – the visible teleconferencing tools are a crucial way to exchange energy.

Values and criteria: Culture walks on 2 legs (at least): beliefs and behaviors (2B). It’s the way we do things around here and what beliefs we share. Those beliefs direct behaviors – so shared beliefs are important. Virtual teams must make extra effort to identify their core values, criteria and beliefs – make them very explicit before they start collaborating. Even more than teams that see each other every day in the hallways. Such as: do we value timely results or perfect results? Do we spend more time – or do we share things earlier or try to sell them before they’re perfect? How do we reconcile dilemma’s? What other dilemma’s do we foresee? How would we solve these tensions?

While applying these values and criteria, common behaviors will emerge in the virtual team. What is normal? When is work good enough? Do you get away with postponing your deadline or staying away from virtual meetings? Culture may serve as glue between people when they are able to copy-coach-correct each other. These c-c-c circles reinforce certain behaviors in groups. For c-c-c circles to happen, people need frequent interaction and feedback.

That means that people must be able to see each other and see each other’s work: the WHAT they deliver, the HOW they do it and the WHO they are. They need feedback (copy-coach-correct by peers) on the what- and how-levels, and acknowledgement and appreciation for the who-level (who they are is beyond judgment and intrinsically valued) – to build trust and belonging.

In my humble opinion, in virtual teams that can be done best by using visibility tools that allow people to literally see each other, hear each other – and get a sense of their energy. These visibility/energy setting is the core for the c-c-c circle – while once you know each other well – you can even give some feedback through information-only channels such as email.

Invited Comment from Mohamad Jamil (United Arab Emirates):

I got introduced to virtual connectivity tools back in 2004. In the beginning, I was impressed. I thought that this is the future and this should be leveraged upon. I started to include virtual connectivity in almost every proposal I wrote and created reasons to go out there and explore… I simply got enticed by the beauty of working with individuals overseas. The diversity of locations and the ability to connect was priceless back then.

Despite the excitement, I felt drained after each virtual session I lead or participated in. I found it very difficult to get my thoughts through. I found it even more difficult to facilitate sessions to a performing stage. Announcements boards, interactive platforms, conferencing portals…you name it. All of a sudden, my excitement started to fade and the preparation time for my virtual connectivity became a hurdle.

One of the biggest projects that I lead with a virtual connectivity component was Top Talent Camp gathering participants from all over. Virtual connectivity was the only solution to facilitate group work and direct group dynamics towards a performing stage. Six month of administering conference, state of an art interconnectivity platforms and endless exchange of links and sources was of no benefit but to voice out concerns and share individual activity progress. As time passed, workgroup members became more alienated. We did not experience results before the working groups met face to face, interacted and started to collaborate according to capabilities.

I came to a conclusion that virtual connectivity is functional only among groups with individual and independent activity patterns.

Invited Comment from Ralf Groetker (Germany):

As the owner of the problem, I want to take the role of an advocatus diabolic. I want to claim that despite the progress in the development of communication tools which we witnessed in the last years and many more progress to be expected in the near future, virtual teams will never be able to replace old fashioned communication culture in organizations.

At the heart of the problem lies the watercooler-issue (or the coffee-machine or lunch break issue): Digital communication tools do not allow for the kind informal and personal interaction which we experience frequently when working in the office. In my view, informal and personal interaction is not just a “nice to have feature”, but the essence of communication and knowledge work. It’s a misconception to think of human beings as mere intellectual problems solvers. In most situations, the immediate action which we are involved in are social actions: we put forward a proposal, we support or attack the proposal of a colleague, we seek to express personal opinions. All these are moves in a game which should rather be defined in social terms or terms of communicative action than as a pure intellectual activity. (“Argumentative theory” is the background I would refer to if someone would ask me to be more explicit on this.)

Digital communications makes it difficult to engage in this kind of activity, because it offers less channels of communication. (Just think about how much less you can do in a video-conference compared to a face-to-face meeting.) On the other hand, digital tools offer a much more structured form of conversation. This should be a benefit. But in fact, I think in many situations, the openness of ‘normal’ communication is a bug, not a feature. (Therefore, it’s quite rational that, at least in my experience, many people are not too enthusiastic about invitations to join yet another platform or tool.)

Openness is not much needed for when the task is just “getting the job done”. But things are different when tackling with ill defined issues – such as the school-decision problem which we are discussing currently here on CMinds. In situations of these kind, virtual teams will probably not perform very well. I do not see how such a discussion could be lead with either an email list or some communication tool. (I would offer a bet that the approach of „structured collaboration“ which is part of many software tools on the market today will not really succeed.)

Solutions? One solution might be to redefine “collaboration”. This is indeed the approach which CMind seems to take as a first step. The problem owner presents a complete issue analysis and asks the group for comments about single components. Given that he will be able to incentivize to group participate, he could gain a lot by this kind of procedure, especially if there are feedback-loops in the overall procedure. Sure: This is not the kind of Wikipedia-like many-to-many “collaboration” which many people are talking about today. But it could be an approach that works. I am curious to see how this experiment which we are participating in will succeed.

Invited comment from Paul Culmsee, Seven Sigma Business Solutions (Australia)

Notwithstanding the fact that this question places a pejorative slant on face to face communications as being “old fashioned”. I think the answer is “maybe yes but unlikely nonetheless”.

Team performance is primarily driven by having certain enabling conditions in place. JR Hackman studied team performance for years, concluding that six conditions, irrespective of technology/methodology used, tended to lead to better results. They were:

  • A real team: Interdependence among members, clear boundaries distinguishing members from non-members and moderate stability of membership over time
  • A compelling purpose: A purpose that is clear, challenging, and consequential. It energizes team members  and fully engages their talents
  • Right people: People who had task expertise, self-organized and skill in working collaboratively with others
  • Clear norms of conduct: Team understands clearly what behaviors are, and are not, acceptable
  • A supportive organizational context: The team has the resources it needs and the reward system provides recognition and positive consequences for excellent team performance
  • Appropriate coaching: The right sort of coaching for the team was provided at the right time,

Now it is clear that a distributed team as described in the scenario can and will negatively affect some of the conditions listed unless special care is taken. But in saying that, an organization with a strong blame culture will trump any technology, whether face to face or electronic! Furthermore, the location of people, the processes, tools or systems they use also contribute to enabling or disabling conditions too. (E.g. waterfall approaches to project delivery tends to put people into a blame apportionment/cover your ass mode of thinking and acting. Agile approaches without collaboratively mature people or compelling direction can equally disable things too – otherwise there would be no need for Agile coaches!)

While I am happy to be proven wrong, what I currently feel certain about is this: When resolution is needed to complex issues between teams and stakeholders, face to face is the predominant method used. Thus the superficial answer to the question is no – virtual teams cannot replace old fashioned communications culture. But, with awareness of Hackmans’s conditions and proactive management of those conditions, I think it can.

Anyway, I think the question is not the question that should be asked. Instead I would be ask: “what do we need to do to create the right conditions for the team to make this new product line a success?”

Invited comment from David Price (Debategraph-founder, UK)

What are the greatest challenges of working with distributed teams?

Every team is distributed to a greater or lesser degree; it’s just that we notice the dimensions and degrees of distribution less when we spend more time in close physical proximity to each other.

So, in a sense, the greatest challenges of working with distributed teams are the challenges of working with teams:

(1) The need for all members of the team to be comfortable and confident in their own identity, the identity of their role within the team; their identity as a team; the identity of the team’s goals and mission, and the identity of the context in which the team’s work is occurring.

(2) As the identities in (1) are dynamic and interrelated, the need to establish a communication context in which the flow of emerging tensions and ambiguities is surfaced, considered, and addressed constructively, transparently, quickly and effectively – and in which each participant feels that their contribution is heard and valued.
Trust – in each other and in the process – is fundamental to this and has to be cultivated consciously from the outset and sustained continuously throughout the team’s life. It’s the bond that coheres no matter the distance: and a bond that’s all too easy to break.

Please let us know what you think about this case! Paste your comments below.

  4 comments for “Collaborating in Virtual Teams

  1. 17. Oktober 2014 at 11:52

    Nice case! I think it helps to appoint some sort of technology stewards – people who monitor the toolset and use of the tools. Often there are many tools available but they are not well used. Having one or two people specifically looking at the ways of communicating and being together helps. A nice book is REMOTE from 37 signals Based on their experiences with lots of practical advice

    • groetker
      17. Oktober 2014 at 23:02

      Thanks for the hint, Joitske! Interesting that your answer to our question is rather on the technical side than one psychological one. Without having read „Remote“: My personal view is that „collaboration“ includes quite a lot of different situations and goals. Each one requires a different approach – which in turn call for a certain group of tools.

      • 18. Oktober 2014 at 10:02

        Yes, it is on the technical side – I think tools can make a huge difference but then again a common practice of working together with the tools and that is more on the user side that the technology per se

  2. groetker
    22. Oktober 2014 at 17:02

    As mentioned above, this is a cross-posting from Berlin Change Days, where also some comments can be found. The site is only accessible for logged-in user, though: Then there is another cross-post at This is „members only“. I will make available the results from the comments of these two sites soon here.

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