The recent run-up of gas prices has lead to many U.S. companies rethinking their stance on telecommuting, and in the more global context, the increasing acceptance of outsourcing is creating virtual teams at an unprecedented rate. Given the euphoria over Software-as-a-Service applications, the question of how effective they are at enabling virtual team performance is being raised more and more.
On the one hand, there’s the thought that someone having less of a commute and more time to work on tougher projects that require more concentration will lead to greater performance. On the other, there’s the perception that employees are slacking off at home. In between these extremes is the truth.
Meet the Managers
I decided to do my own survey on this subject, speaking with some friends and neighbors who are sales managers and responsible for virtual teams themselves. Their insights are provided here:
- Creating and sustaining credibility through accomplishing a shared objective is critical. Managers of virtual teams talked more about how critical this was; they were very concerned that members of a virtual team would “spin out” or worse, get caught up in the urgent fire drills in their regions for other parts of the company. The use of team collaboration applications made it possible to have virtual team members see their contributions to a broader, more team-specific goal.
- Virtual teams breed familiarity and conflict faster than co-located ones. Managers talked of conference calls where one team member was six time zones away from another, where team members try to multiplex their personal responsibilities with team calls. In addition, just relying on e-mails was ineffective in that other virtual team members would take an e-mail the wrong way and get angry. Just relying on e-mail alone was a conflict breeding ground. They’ve gone to content and e-mail management systems where discussion threads are encouraged. To alleviate conflicts, these team managers tell people to get on a plane and meet to work it out in person. Don’t rely just on systems to resolve the deepest disagreements; it never works, according to them.
- Structuring jobs so that large uninterrupted blocks of time can be intensely applied to tasks. The best experiences these managers spoke of occurred when they were able to give larger, more complex projects to those virtual team members and give them freedom concerning how they would complete them. The manager of one training and development department for a major networking vendor told me that his best team members had the initiative to solve the smaller problems on their own and were proud of their autonomy.
- Only when CRM and collaboration applications were oriented toward constantly showing team members’ performance did they work. One manager said that adding in applications is the last step to building and maintaining a team as people need to understand how to work with, interact and trust each other first. She also said that her best results from using CRM were to show performance of all reps on the front page of their portal, so every time team members logged in, they saw their rankings. The peer pressure to excel was as powerful as the competition.
- CRM and collaboration systems only became valuable once trust was created. When trust is good and the team focuses on a common goal, the systems provide useful insights and metrics, and the CRM systems become archival in nature; they store results. Conversely, when teams are faltering and tend to get diverted, CRM’s tools for follow-up and re-focusing come in handy. CRM, then, is seen as a tool for keeping teams focused. The best case is when the analytics applications reflect high performance and people compete for the best rankings. The worst scenario is when CRM gets used as a substitute for micromanaging bosses. Everyone I spoke with who is on a virtual team said when micromanagement sets in, a team actually goes backward. Fear kills virtual team dynamics.
- Face time, even across multiple time zones, needs to happen at least a few times a year. Nothing can take the place of face time, because even the most skilled virtual team members still need to trust and be trusted by the people they are working with. Managers I spoke to said that they resist turning these into complaining sessions and instead focus first on celebrating team successes and then handling cross-functional tasks.
The bottom line is that making virtual teams work, even if they are contained just in the U.S., is hard work. CRM and collaboration technologies amplify the dynamics of the team itself. No amount of technology can get people to trust and work with each other. Where CRM has been most effective first and foremost is in spurring competition on performance.
Louis Columbus, a CRM Buyer columnist, is a member of the Cincom Manufacturing Business Solutions Team and a former senior analyst with AMR Research. He has worked with enterprise clients on defining solutions to their channel management, order management and service lifecycle management strategies. Mr. Columbus also teaches graduate-level international business and marketing courses at Webster-Loyola Marymount University and University of California, Irvine. He is the author of fifteen books on technology and two books on analyst relations. His book, Getting Results from your Analyst Relations Strategies, can be downloaded for free.