DESIGN AND MANAGEMENT OF GEOGRAPHICALLY-DISPERSED TEAMS
Randi S. Brenowitz, MBA and Tracy C. Gibbons, Ph.D.
article appeared in the conference binder of the Annual Conference
of the Northern California Human Resources Association October
Teams have become a way of life in most corporations. They are
one of the few work arrangements that enable the knowledge and
experience of many to be brought to bear on increasingly complex
and difficult problems. But teams give rise to their own unique
problems of joint decision-making, shared ownership, role clarification,
etc., and not all members are equally skilled or predisposed to
work in a collaborative way. When the challenges of virtual and
remote teaming are added to the inherent organizational struggles
over interdependence and collaboration, new problems are created
and, therefore, new and creative approaches for supporting the
work and interaction of teams become necessary.
The complexities and demands of today's marketplace have also
set the stage for teams that are not necessarily co-located. Many
factors have created the increasing need to rely on teams that
are not all in the same office building at the same time, sitting
in the same conference room. These include increased globalization,
mergers and acquisitions, downsizing, decentralization, the cost
or shortage of labor, customer's requirements for fast time-to-market,
the increasing complexity of today's products and product development
cycles, and the proliferation of strategic alliances and partnerships.
This trend is further fueled by employees who are increasingly
making lifestyle choices that affect their ability to work in
traditional organizations. The increase in telecommuting, flexible
work arrangements, and dual-career families significantly reduce
the amount of overlap in team members' workday. The inability
or reluctance of some employees to relocate to another city or
country to "follow the work" has created the need to
find ways for people to work together who may not be co-located.
Other potential employees are choosing to become independent consultants
and contractors. They join an organization in a "virtual"
way, adding to the complexities of building a team.
A number of terms are frequently used when referring to teams
that are not co-located or meeting face-to-face. They are Cyber
Teams (CTs), Virtual Teams (VTs), and Geographically Dispersed
Teams (GDTs). Some subtle but important distinctions should be
made about these three types of teams. CTs are any teams that
conduct a majority of their business using electronic media rather
than face-to-face meetings. GDTs are those teams, which are not
co-located and must work together to produce one project, product,
or outcome. VTs are more temporary in nature. They are cross-functional,
with members from different departments, divisions, or even companies
(in the case of strategic alliances) and may or may not be geographically
corporations have had remote sites for many years, the difference
now is that people at different locations are increasingly being
asked to work interdependently and to share accountability for
a single product, project, or outcome. The paradox here is that
the needs of the marketplace have increased the need for interdependence
and collaboration, while other market conditions and the personal
needs and desires of the workforce are decreasing the possibilities
of co-location and face-to-face communication. Properly supported
and facilitated VTs and GDTs can be one effective response to
& Geographically-Dispersed Teams
In their book TeamWork: What Must Go Right/What Can Go Wrong,
Larson and LaFasto (Sage, 1989) identify eight characteristics
of high-performing teams: (1) a clear, elevating goal; (2) a results-driven
structure; (3) competent members; (4) unified commitment; (5)
a collaborative climate; (6) standards of excellence; (7) external
support and recognition; and (8) principled leadership. There
is widespread agreement among researchers and practitioners that
these are the attributes of successful teams. However, the research
that produced these characteristics was done exclusively with
The preliminary research on VTs and GDTs done by Kossler and Prestridge
(1996) at the Center for Creative Leadership and Lipnak and Stamps
(1997) suggests that these factors also apply to GDTs, but it
is more difficult for GDTs to develop these attributes than it
is for co-located teams. Although co-located teams also face issues
related to trust, leadership, consensus, decision-making, roles,
conflict management, goals, and schedules, they are intensified
in and are of particular concern when dealing with VTs and GDTs
(Kossler & Prestridge 1996). These issues, in particular,
are exacerbated by distance and the effects of significantly reduced
face-to-face and other informal contact among members.
and Facilitating VTs and GDTs
In our work with teams of all types in corporations and as faculty
of The Fielding Institute's master's program in Organization Design
and Effectiveness we have developed a model for how to support
and facilitate the start-up and development of effective VTs and
GDTs. Such teams increasingly rely on various telecommunications
media to enable their work together. Without the widespread availability
of teleconferencing, video conferencing, e-mail, facsimile, voice
mail, and groupware applications, it would be impossible for these
teams to operate. Use of and reliance on these tools as the primary
means of communication among team members gives rise to a new
set of problems. Our approach, therefore, utilizes a combination
of occasional, carefully planned and facilitated face-to-face
meetings and thoughtful, strategic use of technology and telecommunications
In face-to-face discussions, a message is conveyed 55% by body
language, 38% by tone of voice, and only 7% by actual words. In
telephone conversations, a message is conveyed 87% by tone of
voice and 13% by actual words (Mehrabian & Ferris 1967). CTs,
VTs and GDTs often rely on other media for access to and communication
with each other, and CTs grapple with the limitation that all
they have are the actual words. That is one reason why we believe
that a facilitated face-to-face start-up meeting is an essential
ingredient for the development of a high-performing CT. Such a
start-up meeting should include:
creation of a clear set of team agreements. The team first needs
to agree on what they mean by the word "team." "Different
cultures have different ideas as to what constitutes a good team
as well as a good team meeting" (Tower & Sharp 1997).
The team also needs to agree on a definition of time. If members
of the team are in different time zones or even on different continents,
what is the meaning of "Let's all have this done by Tuesday?"
In addition, different cultures have different sensibilities about
what "being on time" means. We recommend the creation
of Team Standard Time. It doesn't matter whose time it is as long
as everyone on the team agrees to the same definition. This also
adds to the cohesion of the team. Even though members are located
in different places, they all can relate to Team Standard Time.
The team also needs to agree on what, when, and how information
will be shared and on how team members will respond to it (Kossler
& Prestridge 1996). If all team members are not from the same
country, there will need to be an agreement on what language the
team will use for its communications. Finally, the team needs
to develop process agreements that address how they will work
together and their rules of engagement.
development of clearly articulated and agreed-upon goals. Clear
goals are important for all teams, but they are critical for those
who do not see each other frequently. When team members are clear
about what is expected of them, they are more likely to know how
and when to make tradeoffs and how to behave when they are back
at their remote site and don't have other team members nearby
for conversation and clarification. A clear sense of the work
of the team and its outcomes also enables team members to represent
the work of the team to others at team members' various locations.
This helps to mitigate the out-of-sight-out-of-mind phenomenon
often experienced by VTs and GDTs.
development of a clear set of roles and responsibilities. "The
role is a basic social structure that mediates between an independent
individual and expected behavior in a group.... In virtual teams
with limited face-to-face interaction, roles rise in importance"
(Lipnack & Stamps 1997). Roles and responsibilities in groups
are the basis of and define the essential relationship among members.
In work teams, they are also the basis of interdependencies and
accountabilities. When members have frequent and casual interaction,
points of confusion and misunderstanding can be dealt with in
real-time. But without such contact, the potential for the structure
to break down in the face of ambiguity and time-lags is great,
bringing with it the likelihood of members working in vacuums
doing uncoordinated and possibly competitive work.
creation of a conflict-resolution process. Because it is so much
harder for people to deal with even minor conflict when they can't
simply "go next door" for clarification, an agreed-upon
conflict-resolution process becomes even more necessary. If this
is not done, "conflicts can get ignored because of the difficulty
of communicating by phone, e-mail, or other technologies. Unresolved
conflicts compound the team's communication and trust problems"
(Kossler & Prestridge 1996). Especially in GDTs, such problems
can (and usually do) snowball and eventually immobilize the team.
in the use of electronic tools and applications. It is helpful
for team members to be trained on the use of any electronic tools
and applications that they will be using before they go to their
separate locations and lose the opportunity to ask questions "real-time."
It is easy to assume that expensive tools are the answer to the
problems created when people are linked by technology rather than
proximity. Although electronic tools are a necessary aid to VTs
and GDTs, they also frequently add to the frustration of team
members. Training and help-desk assistance are essential if the
team is to get maximum benefit from any tool they are using. The
training should also address the social psychology of the use
of such media. Team members often assume that communicating by
technology is the same (or easier) than communicating face-to
face. In fact, the potential for misunderstanding and the risk
aversion that results is extraordinary.
In summary, the Center for Creative Leadership's research found
that "an important outcome of [a face-to-face start-up] meeting
is the personal rapport that develops between team members. Such
rapport establishes the foundation necessary for working across
distances" (Kossler & Prestridge 1996).
As with a co-located team, not all work can or will be done by
the team in team meetings. Individuals or sub-teams are frequently
assigned sub-tasks to complete. With VTs and GDTs, these tasks
must be even more clearly defined than with co-located teams.
There is a higher probability of miscommunication and/or confusion
when people are not in the same room talking to each other. Once
the misunderstanding is identified, there is a higher probability
for those on VTs and GDTs to believe they have been "wronged"
by others on the team. Therefore, it becomes necessary to clearly
define the deliverables and the milestones for any sub-tasks that
are delegated. In order for any project work to be successfully
integrated, it is also important that the interfaces between the
sub-teams be identified and defined.
VTs and GDTs require stronger leadership than conventional teams
(Lipnack & Stamps 1997). Teams that are co-located can sit
in a conference room and circle around an issue until they come
to some agreement and consensus. When the team is "meeting"
in cyberspace, this process can become an endless circling that
never converges into a consensus. With electronic communication,
there is a tendency for a discussion to never close when keeping
it open is as simple as pressing the "reply" button
on the keyboard. The leader(s) must be willing to manage the process
of bringing the team to closure and consensus. The leader(s) should
ensure full participation of team members and help to keep the
multiple dialogues straight and on task. The heightened ambiguity
of working in dispersion suggests the need for increased structure,
and the formal leader must take the initiative to create structure
and define boundaries. This is not meant to control the members
or constrain initiative or creativity; without a counterbalancing
force to the ambiguity, teams quickly become immobilized. A laissez-faire
approach to CTs clearly does not work.
Tasks that are typically completed by members of conventional
teams, such as organizing or coordinating sub-tasks and integrating
outputs of individual work may require the attention of the leader
in a CT, VT, or GDT. This is not necessarily because members don't
recognize the need for such structure or don't know how to manage
them under more conventional circumstances. More likely, it is
because of their lack of familiarity with how to raise issues
such as these using a technically supported forum. If the leader
creates the required structure, which includes identifying the
need; recruiting/naming a person who will be responsible for managing
the task or process; providing the necessary support and coaching;
and holding both the task manager and the other team members accountable
for engaging and reaching closure, team members are less likely
to experience frustration and gridlock.
of Team Members
There must be strong commitment from team members both to the
goals of the team and to the effort required to be on a VT or
a GDT. The technology can be frustrating, the work of the team
can be complex, and other demands on team members' time can be
intense. If team members are not deeply committed to the work
of the team, it will be easy to succumb to one of these frustrations
and demands. This is, of course, true for all teams, and the benefit
of committed members is well-proven. Work in dispersion, with
its heightened ambiguity, the need to accommodate time lags and
distortion, and the sense of isolation requires a better-than-average
command of team skills and individual presence.
Plans should be made for periodic face-to-face team meetings.
"These meetings will help maintain and refresh connections
among members and minimize 'out-of-sight, out-of-mind' attitudes"
(Kossler & Prestridge 1996). These meetings can be used to
resolve conflicts that may be festering between team members,
as well as to create opportunities for team members to come together
and celebrate their accomplishments.
VTs and GDTs could not exist without the technological tools that
are available today. A number of the tools are synchronous, requiring
that people be available at the same time even if they are in
different places. Examples of this are telephone, teleconferencing,
video conferencing, and chat rooms.
Other tools including voice-mail, e-mail, faxes, groupware, and
computer-mediated conferencing (CMC) are asynchronous. CMC is
a computer application that allows people who are not co-located
to structure and carry on a dialogue on a particular topic. Frequently,
there are tools within the application to aid teams with prioritizing
and decision-making. We have found CMC to be an excellent tool
for the completion of project work. The benefits of CMC are that
it allows for multiple conversations to be carried on simultaneously,
and it creates a record of interaction. This type of tool allows
for input to be thought through more thoroughly than might be
feasible in a face-to-face meeting. The limitations of this type
of tool are a loss of non-verbal cues during communication, reduced
spontaneity, and the time lag between postings and replies. Computer-mediated
conferencing requires focused time and effort. Without that, it
is easy to get hopelessly behind. Lisa Kimball (1995) refers to
this as the "rolling present." "People generally
consider material current if it has been entered since they last
logged on. If you have several members who sign on four times
a day, they may make it difficult for most group members to engage
with the virtual group; it will all go by too fast." Although
CMC is not a panacea for VTs and GDTs, we have found it to be
a useful and promising tool for the completion of work that is
interdependent and requires collaboration among members.
The current conditions in today's marketplace and the personal
and lifestyle choices being made by today's workforce make CTs,
VTs and GDTs a necessary component of most companies. If properly
facilitated and appropriately supported technologically, they
can be an effective competitive advantage rather than being the
source of a new set of problems.
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