Thanks to the combined forces of globalisation and outsourcing, more managers face the challenge of leading employees from afar.
The establishment of virtual teams as an organisational way of life has come so quickly that it's left many managers at a bit of a loss. As they have discovered, managing employees virtually is not the same as managing them face-to-face.
Cultural and language differences become magnified, as do conflicts. It is much easier to hide errors and problems, sweep misunderstandings under the rug, and make erroneous assumptions when you are communicating via phone and e-mail rather than in person.
Furthermore, such mistakes and mix-ups are more likely to become full-fledged
disasters when the group does not acknowledge them openly. This is not to suggest such problems are inevitable.
Whether you are managing an offshore operation, a recent acquisition, or a global team, trust begins with you. You must be as responsive and committed to your virtual team as you are to colleagues sitting right down the hall.
They have to know that your door is open, even if they can't see it. And you must go out of your way to accommodate cross-cultural differences - even if that means changing a few of your own habits.
Building on this, Harvard Management Update polled several experts and practitioners to put together these six steps to boost trust in virtual teams.
Create face time
Even a small amount of face-to-face contact goes a long way towards creating trust among co-workers. For that reason, Stanford Graduate School of Business?s Professor Margaret Neale strongly recommends a physical launch when starting work with a virtual team.
"An initial in-person meeting not only allows people to interact within the context of the team and the task, it allows them to sit together at lunch and get to know each other," she says.
Set clear goals and expectations
Clear goals and expectations are fundamental to building and maintaining trust. "In your launch meeting, you should have an explicit discussion about what you want to accomplish and how you will know you have gotten there," says Neale. "The team can handle divergence without it eroding trust if everyone has the same goal."
Make the work visible
Another roadblock to trust occurs when team members don't know whether their distant colleagues are taking care of business. Ton Heijmen, Senior Advisor to The Conference Board for outsourcing and offshoring, says that one company created its own collaborative software for managing outsourcing projects.
Provide ongoing feedback
Managers who are perceived as fair and trustworthy are usually those who provide feedback to subordinates on their performance. Just like your team down the hall, your virtual team needs regular input on how it is doing. "E-mails that say, 'We had a great week,' or 'Great job solving that issue,' go a long way toward establishing trust and good relationships."
When managing a virtual team, you must make sure each team member has a clear understanding of her role and, just as important, the roles of her team-mates.
When you are managing from afar, cultural differences stand out. Virtual teams must often overcome language barriers and diverse ways of doing business. For example, George Valaika, Global Geosourcing Director for Accenture HR Services, was recently approached by a local team member who was perplexed by the spiritual message at the end of an e-mail from a colleague in India. "I explained that Indian culture tends to be more open about spiritual life," he explains.