It’s no secret that we live in an era of steady technological change and today’s COVID-19 new normal is underscoring the use of technology to bind us together. The critical need to conduct our work in the absence of the traditional office setting is bringing new challenges to how teams work together.
Whether you are a global company or working in the confines of a single region, geographically distributed teams are the new norm in the engineering and construction industry. Projects are now global in nature. Companies are coping with the need to secure services from lower cost, offshore service providers and global projects driven by increased size and complexity that require coordinating resources in multiple countries to get work done.
In a business environment where fewer and fewer teams can co-locate or hold face-to-face meetings, the industry must adapt to distributed teamwork. Like it or not, virtual teams are here to stay and collaborative technology is often encouraged, if not required, by today’s business leaders. When thinking about how distributed teams can work well together, there are additional factors to consider surrounding the use of technology. Common barriers to the success of distributed teams include:
- Lack of methods and best practices geared to working in virtual environments
- Inadequate hardware
- Limited, secure bandwidth
- Poor software interoperability
- Time differences
- Lack of trust
- Tepid team member participation
- Cultural and language challenges
- Absence of social cues typically available in more interpersonal settings
As organizations shift from a co-located workforce to a new paradigm, they need to focus more on the core elements of the team, new and improved work methods geared to virtual teams, and the use of collaborative technology.
Team leadership is a fundamental ingredient for improving the performance of distributed teams. Effective virtual teams require leaders who establish, connect, and align team members around specific project tasks, completion of important milestones, and maintaining the quality of deliverables.
To keep their teams focused, leaders must consistently be involved in activities and supplement team constituents and resources when needed. Team member accountability is also a key factor, followed by dependable engagement and trust among team members. Leaders of distributed teams must nurture all of these. Because these elements are more challenging in a virtual setting, having solid methods of engagement and practices in place is critical to compensate for the lack of traditional relationships in co-located workers.
Additionally, meeting standards (including regular meetings), dispute resolution guidelines, communication standards, and team member alignment are all key process considerations for distributed teams. Regardless of which technology the team uses, team communication is crucial for sustaining virtual team members. Team leaders and team members must be diligent to ensure communication is open, clear, and concise in a virtual setting. Think about parsing the endless stream of multi-threaded, disjointed emails with cryptic and unclear actions every day and you know what I’m talking about.
To achieve their objectives, teams require carefully organized assignments and tasks. It’s also important to establish well-defined expectations for team member accountability and independent work along with a dispute management process to ensure everyone understands what’s expected of them.
Clearly, technology is a fundamental component of success and satisfaction for virtual teams. Not surprisingly, connectivity and secure bandwidth dominate, followed by collaborative communication software, such as video, texting, chatting, and desktop sharing. Data interoperability and work tracking also factor into the technology space to support distributed teams.
Distributed teams are now commonplace, but the success and satisfaction of working within them is somewhat elusive. To combat the challenges of working virtually in today’s workplace, team composition, leadership, and methods of executing work specifically geared to distributed teams are critical to using technology effectively to bind us together. Leaders and team members must learn and embrace new skills and adopt differentiated processes to enable team success. Adopting these success factors will help team members thrive and contribute effectively in distributed teams.