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Virtual Teams: People Working Across Boundaries With Technology J. Lipnack, J. Stamps. (John Wiley & Sons, 2000)

Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps have written five other books that have been translated around the world 

Virtual Teams: Working Across Space, Time, and Organizations J. Lipnack, J. Stamps. (John Wiley & Sons, 1997)

The Networking Book: People Connecting with People. J. Lipnack, J. Stamps. (British publisher, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986)

Teamnet Factor: Bringing the Power of Boundary Crossing into the Heart of Your Business. J. Lipnack, J. Stamps. (John Wiley & Sons, 1985)

The Age of the Network: Organizing Principles for the 21st Century J. Lipnack, J. Stamps. (John Wiley & Sons, 1984)

Networking: The First Report and Directory. J. Lipnack, J. Stamps. (Doubleday, 1982)

Other Good Books

Mastering Virtual Teams: Strategies, Tools, and Techniques that Succeed. D. L. Duarte, N. T. Snyder. (Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999)

Tools for Virtual Teams: A Team Fitness Companion. J. E. Henry, M. Hartzler. (Quality Press, 1998)

Going Virtual. R. Grenier, G. Metes. (Prentice-Hall, 1995)

Articles

TechnoTeams—A Resource for Virtual Teams includes a terrific article on the benefits of virtual teams.

Working on Virtual Teams.” Alyson Preston. Monster.com.

Leading Virtual Teams.” George Davis. Leader-values.com

The Virtual Team: Strategies to Optimize Performance.” Lisa Kimball. Health Forum Journal. May 1999.

The Relationship Revolution.” Michael Schrage. The Merrill Lynch Forum.

Web Sites and Companies

Caucus Systems, Inc. Excellent source of white papers and published work on virtual teams.

Net.Worker Tying Telecommuters to the Enterprise. Published by NetworkWorld.  Some interesting articles. Check archives. Can also subscribe to free newsletter.

The Virtual Organization. This site is focused on various aspects of the virtual organization such as leadership, structure, collaboration, teams, technology, methods, and learning.

Collaborative Strategies. Great source of case studies and market research on collaboration from both a people and technical perspective. Must register on site to access articles.

The CoWorking Institute. Interesting tips and articles. Read about the Technography™ method for using a computer as a facilitation tool.

Applied Knowledge Group. Virtual team solutions and services.

Events

Participate in the Online Social Networks 2001 conference March 28-April 11, 2001 online!

The CEO lived in Massachusetts, the president worked from Utah, the engineering team was based in Ohio, and a few others worked out of their homes. Yet, while Valent Software’s ten employees never really co-located, they were able to sell their $700,000 investment and three years of work for $45 million to a major web portal.

What Valent did with a small team scattered across the country is what many other companies aspire to: virtual work.

Human beings have always worked and socialized in face-to-face groups. Now people no longer must be in the same building—never mind on the same continent—to work together. Like Valent Software, they belong to virtual teams that transcend distance, time zones, and organizational boundaries.

Until the advent of the web, such ways of working were impractical. A few thousand lines of computer code written in Switzerland in 1989 to help a network of particle physicists—coupled with unprecedented advances in technology—have transformed the world.

The 9:00 to 5:00 office, as we have known it, is more often than not—not. Many of us attend meetings in our pajamas, talk with people halfway around the globe, use insomnia to catch up online, worry about head-set not car-seat comfort, and partner with people we have never—and may never—meet face-to-face. One-third of the 25,000 residential dwellings in my city (Newton, Massachusetts) house “white-collar” businesses and the white-collars themselves are on the express train to antiquity. What with “casual Fridays” having crept backwards through the workweek, even suit manufacturers have to update their lines.

What first comes to mind when you think of a team? A group of people working side-by-side, in close proximity to one another—a basketball or soccer team, perhaps?

Today’s worker can be reached by cell phone, pager, email, and fax—but is often isolated from the rest of the office team and works with people from other organizations all the time. Whether you are in your own dining room or basement, a startup or a dorm, a struggling dot.com or a successful brick and mortar company, chances are that the people you work with are more than 50 feet away. If this is true, then distance probably causes you communication problems.

For each person, the important distances are the very short ones. How close people prefer to be for interpersonal interactions varies by culture—from inches to feet.

How far away do people have to be before they need to worry about compensating for distance? Put another way: How close do you have to be to get the advantage of being in the same place, or what is the “radius of collaborative co-location?”

Startling data that MIT Professor Tom Allen has been compiling for the past several decades shows that the radius is very small. The probability of communicating or collaborating more than once a week drops off dramatically if people are more than the width of a basketball court apart. To get the benefit of working in the same place, people need to be quite close together.

To put this in perspective, think of the people you regularly work with. Are they all within 50 feet of you? Or are some of your coworkers a bit more spread out, down the hall, on another floor, in another building, another company, or perhaps in another city, or even another country?

Increasingly, the people we work with are no longer within shouting distance. Any team of more than about 10 or 15 people is, by sheer physical mass, probably more than 50 feet apart.

Global distance is another thing. The further apart people are physically, the more time zones they must cross to communicate. Thus, time becomes a problem when people not in the same place need some of their activities to be in sync. The window for routine same-time (synchronous) work shrinks as more time zones are crossed, closing to effectively zero when people are on opposite sides of the globe.

Let’s not forget, though, that people who work together in the same place can have problems being in that same place at the same time. Think about those in sales or consulting who rarely occupy their offices at the same time. These teams, too, often cross time boundaries and need to think virtually. 

Increasingly we work across distance, time, and organizational boundaries to communicate with our co-workers and teammates in new ways. Technology may extend our communication reach, but organizing to do things together is only human. The most profound change of the new millennium is really in the way we’re organized.

Long ago, societies established the bigger-is-better trend in organizational design. At the dawn of the Agricultural Era, the average size of human groups suddenly grew from a multimillion-year-old pattern of 20 person-camps to farming towns of hundreds and cities of thousands. Bigger has had a largely uninterrupted run for 12,000 years—until right now. In a comparative nanosecond of evolutionary time, centralization and hierarchy have slammed into global limits. We’ve decentralized our work, and are perpetually re-forming groups.

Communication technologies and computer networks support this pregnant moment. The Internet and the web, as surprising as it may seem, are bringing individuals, small groups, and chosen communities back to center stage.

As more people interconnect online, they increase their capacity for both independence and interdependence. Competition and cooperation both thrive in the new culture. The global Internet fosters numberless combinations of groups of varying size, sponsoring mass individuality and massive participation. Cyberspace is a vast new civilization, containing places of commerce and an already deep social life mirrored in countless conversations. In time, virtual teams will become nothing special, but rather the natural way to work.

But how does it feel today? Different. It’s a blurry messy world where everyone is scrambling to catch up.

“In a networked organization, leaders have to use influence and powers of persuasion, which is much more complex and much more challenging than giving orders,” says Phil Carroll, chairman and chief executive officer at Fluor Corporation, “Young leaders have the ability to operate in this new environment. They recognize that they’re not working on the authoritarian model.”

Leaders must think differently about themselves, Carroll says. “You are not the source of all wisdom.” He calls it an emotional challenge, “if you are predisposed to want to exercise leadership from the more authoritarian model. If that’s what you want to be, you’ll find this other kind of leadership difficult and very frustrating because at times it’s slower and not as efficient and you don’t get your way. And for some people that is a problem.”

Trust underlies the years ahead. Online we work through people we trust. People work together because they trust one another. They make deals, undertake projects, set goals, and lend one another resources. Teams with trust converge more easily, organize their work more quickly, and manage themselves better. Less trust makes it much more difficult to generate and sustain successful virtual teams.

Trust has always been important for groups. In the work-a-day world of the Industrial Age, trust was more of a “nice to have” quality than a “need to have” one. But, times have changed. Virtual teams can be quicker, smarter, more flexible work groups in a sea of change. As highly adaptive organizations, these teams can cope with tumultuous complexity. For them, trust is a “need to have” quality.

Without daily face-to-face cues, trust is both harder to attain and easier to lose. Mistrust slips in between the slender lines of long-distance communication stripped of the nuances of in-person interaction. Business grinds to a halt when trust breaks down.

“Trust builds with the recognition of the contribution that everyone makes,” says Pfizer’s president and chief operating officer Hank McKinnell. “If you make a real contribution, people will trust you.”

Trust is the elixir of group life—the belief, or confidence in a person or organization’s integrity, fairness, and reliability. This faith comes from experience, however brief or extensive. The importance of trust cuts across a team’s life cycle:

  A new team requires trust to begin.

  It’s the all-purpose grease for the ongoing hard work of the team.

  When they’re done, the team leaves trust (or its lack) behind.

As trust accumulates—in teams, corporations, communities, and nations—it creates a new form of wealth. In the Network Age, human, social and knowledge capital are as potent a source of value as land, resources, skills, and technology.

Human capital increases when more people work together in more places, meeting new challenges and acquiring new competencies. Social capital accumulates when virtual team members vastly expand the number and diversity of their relationships. Because of their physical separation, virtual teams have an obligation to make knowledge capital explicit and accessible.

Virtual teams stretch the bounds of human capability, offering value far beyond their immediate functions: they elongate the reach of social capital outside their immediate physical locales. Although many of their elements have ancient roots, today’s virtual teams look out over vistas of virtual places never before seen by human eyes. They are the wave of the future, but are here with us today.

How to Launch a Virtual Team

Traditional planning is a serial process: People start at the beginning, arrive at a fixed plan, and then go to work. Awash in the flux and chaos of change, the method by which a virtual team takes form is not linear. It cycles through a series of ever-better rapid prototypes of itself. The team does a mental self-mock-up as it starts, and then refines itself over time. Ironically, Internet speed requires more, not fewer, planning orbits. Short effective planning sessions, early in the life of a virtual team, can establish good habits, but this requires discipline that many creative people naturally resist.

To help you jump start that planning session and launch your virtual team, here are seven steps:

1.   Create your identity by naming the team.
2.   Draft your mission statement.
3.   Determine key milestones.
4.   Set goals that everyone agrees on.
5.   Identify who needs to be involved.
6.   Establish relationships among members.
7.   Agree on operating protocols.

To succeed, the launch team must involve the key people responsible for implementation and results, which includes sponsors. This is the moment for sponsors to make a lasting contribution and set the team for success.

The creation of the first rough virtual team plan is a powerful, shared experience. Connect early and often. From your very first conversations, be conscious of how much the process is a mix of face-to-face, virtual real-time (synchronous, like phone), and non-real-time exchanges (asynchronous, like email).

Remember: Face-to-face is the fastest way to build trust, crucial in the early phases of virtual team life. If face-to-face meetings are too costly, do the next best thing and invest in telephone or video conference (synchronous) meetings, or same-time web-based interactive technologies. Use as many interactive media as the team can handle. And if you are too global to find same-time windows easily, learn how to hold asynchronous events using fast-cycle online discussion forums and conferences.

And you’re off. Plan, participate, and know above all else, you’re not alone. You’re just a pioneer in a new way to work.

Jessica Lipnack is CEO and co-founder of virtualteams, a Boston-based software company that builds collaborative work environments. A leading expert on virtual teams, she has worked with companies around the world to improve their collaborative capabilities. With industry expert Jeffrey Stamps, she is co-author of six books on this topic, including Virtual Teams: People Working Across Boundaries With Technology  (John Wiley & Sons, 2000), from which this article is adapted.

 

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