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BOOK REVIEW: Tips to work with virtual teams

Sep 06 2016 05:00
Ian Mann

Influencing Virtual Teams: 17 Tactics That Get Things Done With Your Remote Teams,  by Hassan Osman

AUTHOR Hassan Osman is a manager of virtual teams at Cisco. He has had over ten years of experience of this type of management, and has combined his practice with researching virtual teams. “At any given point in time,” he writes, “I could be managing a team of employees in more than eight different countries.

"I also manage multiple projects with multiple customers in different time zones.” If he wasn’t able to get results, he would not have lasted this long - the company depends on effectiveness.

He has produced a slim book, packed with practical advice on how to work with virtual teams. With the advantages of technology, many more organisations are able to operate across vast distances and multiple time zones. Managing virtual teams, whether it is across the country or the world, is commonplace; doing it well, is not.

Thorkil Sonne is the founder of Specialisterne, a multimillion dollar Danish software company that employs people with autism. These people are typically characterised by communication difficulties and social impairments. Sonne was asked by the Harvard Business Review how managing autistic workers differs from managing other people.

He explained that his firm's autistic consultants have trouble understanding social cues, such as gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice. "You have to be precise and direct with them, be very specific about your expectations, and avoid sarcasm and nonverbal communication,” he explains.

This is not unlike virtual teams, who similarly have difficulty understanding social cues, such as gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice and cross-cultural norms. Virtual teams require their manager to be precise and direct with them, very specific about expectations and avoiding sarcasm, humour and nonverbal communication.

Of the 17 “tips” for managers of virtual teams covered in the book, I describe four below.

In a study published in the Journal of Personal and Social Psychology in 1978, people queueing to make photocopies were asked to be allowed to cut into the waiting line.

Different requests were made by the researchers to people queuing for the photocopier. One asked: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?” Another asked: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” The third asked: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”

The first request got a compliance rate of 94%, the second request 60%, and the third 93% - almost as much as the first.  From the full study, researchers concluded that using the word 'because’ increased compliance rate by 33%, regardless of the validity of the reason!

The power of 'because'

In emails, instant messages, meetings and voice messages, include the word “because”. What comes after doesn’t seem to matter much, but is better if it is credible. This one word, Osman believes, increases compliance significantly.

Parkinson’s Law states: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” A common problem for managers of virtual teams is – are they working? Osman suggests that a sense of urgency would be inspired by deadlines.

The deadline has to be 100% clear - "I need this done by Friday, 23 September at 3pm GMT+2." Of course, being unreasonable in your requirements is a prescription for failure. If you are not sure how long a task will take, ask the team. If you are not sure of getting an honest answer from your team, ask for the best and worst-case estimates, and take the midpoint of the two numbers.

People are limited in their commitment by the 'Bystander Effect', the idea that in an emergency, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely anyone will help. The idea was formed after Kitty Genovese, a young woman, was stabbed to death in Kew Gardens, New York City in 1964. Over the course of half an hour, she was attacked three times on the street. The story is that there were thirty-eight witnesses to this horror, but not a single person called the police during the attack. 

Be specific in assigning tasks

The bystander effect is caused by the diffusion of responsibility, where no one person assumes responsibility. To avoid the bystander effect in your team, you should always assign the responsibility of tasks to specific people.

Always assign a task to individuals, not to groups. "Ayanda will be responsible for completing this task, and both Bonito and Thito will help her out.”

Asking for volunteers is always preferable because volunteers are honouring a commitment that they made, rather than one that was assigned. Asking for volunteers also gives people the chance to work on what appeals to them.

Critical to delegation is explaining the tasks explicitly. This starts with knowing exactly what you want, being 100% clear yourself. Only when you have this in place can you be direct in your description. Instead of the vague “Please write a brief summary report about the status of our project,” rather  say: “Please send me a one-slide PowerPoint presentation that summarizes the status of our project in a few bullet points.”

All of the "17 tips" should be part of every manager's repertoire when managing teams with whom he has direct contact. However, they are amplified in importance when dealing with virtual teams, where the biggest cause of failure is miscommunication. Osman's direct, no-frills, straight-talk directions will go a long way to improve the effectiveness of your virtual teams. Definitely worth reading!

Readability:       Light +---- Serious

Insights High:    ---+- Low

Practical High:   +---- Low

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Strategy that Works. Views expressed are his own.

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