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Home > News > January 2007 > 08 January 2007

Managers of virtual teams need new skills, says report

Fewer than one in four managers at global companies work in the same location as their team members, according to a study by global consulting firm BlessingWhite.

Virtual teams may be commonplace among worldwide enterprises in industries such as pharmaceuticals, high technology, manufacturing and financial services, but they demand new skills of managers in order to sustain productivity and employee satisfaction, reported BlessingWhite, which surveyed 898 executives who manage technical and expert professionals.

"In three-quarters of large organisations team members are dispersed across different locations and time zones," said BlessingWhite president and CEO Christopher Rice. "The great majority of technical professionals and their managers rely on technology to communicate and collaborate with colleagues, but relatively few organisations address the frustrations and difficulties that arise with managing such teams."

According to the study, 37% of the executives surveyed find leading virtual teams to be extremely or very challenging. For those in Europe and Asia-Pacific, the figures are higher at 47% and 45% respectively. "It may be that teams based in Europe or Asia have greater cross-border challenges than a team located mostly in North America," said Rice.

What hinders effective management of remote employees, Rice observed, is a lack of daily face-to-face interaction which makes it easy for employees to lose touch. "Team leaders and members alike have to cope with time shifts and extra-long days. Misunderstandings are common and may erode the trust base. Virtual teams need careful nurturing of trusting relationships, as they tend to suffer without informal opportunities to socialise."

The good news is the global organisations are able to recruit high-performing teams without geographical limitations, Rice said. "Managers who can navigate through times zones, cultures and diverse work styles may be rewarded with being able to work with the brightest and most motivated professionals, no matter where they live. But leveraging talent under such circumstances doesn't come naturally for most."

Executives who lead virtual teams must make conversations more personal, advised Rice. "When you can't just walk down the hall and check in it's hard to relate to employees as human beings. E-mail, instant messaging, web meetings, conference calls and net meeting software can facilitate less formal and more friendly virtual interactions, but not without determined and skilful leadership."

Leaders have to be attuned to the mood and nuances of a virtual meeting, Rice believes. "The meeting's kick off is key, for instance. Just as with a non-virtual meeting, the leader has to establish a rapport. Create the kind of mood that stimulates casual conversation so team members can get connected. Don't assume that you are the only one multi-tasking: your employees are also reading their emails and surfing the web. If they are in a different time zone and it is non-business hours, they might be feeding the dog or checking the kids' homework. So you better keep them engaged and focused. You should also encourage people to have their own separate one-on-one calls beforehand to help build relationships and maximize the group's efficiency on the call."

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