Honeywell Manager's Journal

September 2006

Managing Virtual Teams

Managing Across Locations and Time Zones

As businesses expand and diversify, and supply chains span the globe, more managers must build and oversee teams whose members rarely work face to face.

Making these teams run smoothly isn’t easy. Relatively routine tasks, such as scheduling a meeting, become a tangle of time zones when one person’s work day begins as another person is sitting down to dinner – or getting ready for bed. A simple e-mail exchange within a virtual team can frazzle nerves because of cultural misunderstandings, and information needed in one place might sit on a desk somewhere else because there’s no routine mechanism to share knowledge.”

“It’s tougher,” admits Greg Albert, vice president of the Airbus business segment within Aerospace, whose immediate team is scattered across six different countries. “It would be much nicer to walk to the next office and sit down and have a discussion.”

But Albert is quick to emphasize the advantages of a team rich in diverse professional and cultural backgrounds.

“We don’t have any time where we worry about groupthink,” he says. “We are getting uniquely different perspectives in every conversation. If you have the right attitude, virtual teams can be much more powerful.”

How can you make the power of a virtual team work for you rather than against you?

Inner Circle Equals Outer Circle

The right attitude starts with ensuring that virtual teams don’t feel as if they have been exiled to the farthest reaches of the universe. That’s a tough challenge when an organization naturally tends to evolve into an inner circle of people geographically closest to the manager and an outer circle of everyone else. The inner circle benefits from information informally exchanged in cross-cubicle chats and casual telephone calls; the outer circle can grow frustrated at what appears to be intentional exclusionary behavior.

“We assume that everyone has all that information that’s incrementally added to our data set over the course of the day. But you don’t realize how many important business conversations you have in the hall,” says Cheryl Gorman, director of one of the regional aircraft original equipment manufacturer (OEM) divisions for Aerospace. Gorman’s team is in Mexico, Arizona, Canada and Europe.

“I’ll be talking to someone in Europe about a deal we’re working on and how we have totally changed our strategy,” Gorman says. “It’s almost starting from scratch to catch that person up, and I’m sure it’s extremely frustrating for him or her, too.”

“Virtual teams need a clear code of practice,” says Ken Addy, vice president and chief technology officer for Honeywell Security within Automation and Control Solutions (ACS). Addy supervises team members in 15 locations and eight countries.

Addy says ground rules and expectations need to be clearly articulated as soon as the team is formed and whenever a new member joins, and those rules need to be adhered to rigorously so the resulting management operating system becomes second nature.

“We’re diligent about our ‘management operating system,’” Albert says. Like many managers, his team has regular weekly teleconferences for specific projects and monthly meetings for the entire program.

In addition, every two weeks, Albert has a one-on-one meeting with each of the 12 team leaders – the Operations leader, the Sales leader, the business leader and so on – for the Airbus segment.

“I’ll collect three or five items I want to talk to Joe about, and he’ll do the same,” Albert says. “It’s my way of making sure that we both have a chance to catch up on all the small- and medium-size items that may get overlooked in the heat of a normal business day.”

Tools like eProject, a Web-based program, provide a virtual repository of information accessible to everyone on the team. Although team members should get into the habit of checking for the latest inputs, a timely nudge is never a bad thing, Albert says.

Building Trust

Teams work well when the members know each other and trust each other – it helps everybody tackle tasks in a reliable and responsible way, distinguish between conflicts of ideas and conflicts of personality, and ask for help and have a counterpart offer a solution.

Time zone differences, cultural misunderstandings and lack of face-to-face communication can subtly – and sometimes not so subtly – push people out of alignment. Resolving those imbalances and building trust is one of the toughest challenges virtual team managers face.

It is important for the team leader to understand where those cultural misunderstandings may create conflicts and to help the team establish ground rules for operation. By doing so, the leader won’t have to “waste three weeks going through a hierarchy of cultures,” Laufhutte says. “If there’s a problem, I want an instant message saying, ‘Jeff, got a minute? Need to talk to you.’ And I need to be able to send messages that say something similar.”

Albert starts building trust by having a one-on-one meeting with each new hire soon after he or she comes on board – “for imprinting purposes and so they feel the connectivity,” he says. “I want them to know that I care about them, and that they are part of a team that considers them part of the team even if they are 3,000 miles away.”

But while leaders like Albert regularly travel to their teams, teams tend to stay put, which makes it more difficult to establish a rapport between a group in Belgium, say, and one in Bangalore. Managers can facilitate relationship building in this situation through a variety of methods.

Conference calls offer opportunities for interpersonal ice-breakers. Gorman often starts the meeting with what she calls “soft conversation” – a pre-meeting warm-up in which participants relate a two- to three-minute story about some event in their personal or business life – a recent vacation, a challenging work project, even World Cup soccer.

“It helps to make everyone more human if we learn more about each other and get to know each other,” Gorman says.

One good way to gain understanding is to begin by knowing how your own culture impacts the way you complete your work and interact with your team. This can help you interpret what you hear on the phone and allow you to better understand where your team members are coming from.

Laufhutte recently instituted a buddy program to fill the gaps between teleconferences.

“If you’re in Tempe, you have a buddy in Asia-Pacific or France or Canada,” he says. His goal: “We have to get past the fact that culture isn’t personal. You do that by learning things about people that you wouldn’t normally learn during the course of regular business. What are the local holidays? Who do you think will win the World Cup? Why does it matter?”

Andrew Hulse, vice president and general manager of Honeywell Environmental and Water Solutions, part of ACS, builds intra-team trust by exposing people from different groups to common issues.

“When I’ve had business reviews with Phoenix Controls (which manages environmental systems), I might bring someone from the water group along as an observer, not only so Phoenix can learn from the water group, but so the water group can learn from Phoenix,” Hulse says.

Encouraging these types of exchanges goes only so far. Sometimes managers must simply mandate more intra-team interchanges and hope they serve as a launching pad for fostering productive relationships.

“I sat down with my direct reports (split between Minnesota, Toronto, Montreal and Rhode Island) and talked with them about how they need to coordinate among each other,” Hulse says. “I said, ‘Two halves of the same whole – say, Sales and Marketing – need to communicate with each other and anticipate the other’s needs. This needs to happen without me necessarily being there.’ As a manager, you have to make a point to your team that that’s what you expect them to do.”

‘The Key Is to Over-Communicate’

Keeping the lines of communication open and humming is a challenge for any manager. It is magnified many times over when managing virtual teams.

“If we’re on the phone or in a Live Meeting and agree on a way that something should be done, and two weeks later it’s not done that way, I find that it’s usually not because of dysfunction,” Gorman says. “It’s usually a lack of understanding. It’s a communications problem, not a behavior problem.”

“Non-verbal communication is such a large part of how we perceive what other people are saying,” Hulse says. “So when you’re only communicating by e-mail or, to a lesser extent by phone, it’s easier to be misinterpreted.”

Technology – videoconferencing, teleconferencing, e-mail – can help somewhat, although, Gorman says, “you miss the spontaneity.”

That’s why instant messaging (IM) is exploding in popularity.

“I absolutely recommend it,” Laufhutte says. “I can instantly communicate with 16 of my reports at any time.”

Gorman’s group just installed Microsoft Communicator, the IM software that Honeywell supports, and she loves it.

“It’s an informal, fun way to communicate with each other,” Gorman says. “And I find that people are more open on IM because it’s just between you and that person, and it’s instantaneous.”

However, the telephone still remains the primary lifeline for most managers of virtual teams.

“I make an effort to pick up the phone and just check in with direct reports, if not every day, then every couple of days, to make sure I know how things are going and what issues are coming up,” Hulse says. “If I do that, then I feel that the folks who report to me feel comfortable giving me a quick call. And if someone calls, you have to make time for them.”

All of that said, nothing replaces face-to-face communication. “Take advantage of every opportunity to meet face-to-face,” Albert says.

Even when things are going smoothly, “If you go much longer than a quarter without seeing your team, it’s too long,” Hulse says.

When there’s a problem, face-to-face communication is essential, Gorman says.

“I’ve had problems with people whom I’ve only talked with on the phone,” she says. “But then you meet in person and they’re human. I even traveled to another country once to meet someone I was having communications issues with, and that helped a lot. You have to balance the cost and time involved in travel for personal interaction with the real need to do it. When the wheels come off and things aren’t going well, you have to get it resolved quickly – and the best way to do that is face to face.”

There’s a saying that you have to communicate each message seven times, seven ways. That’s especially true with virtual teams.

“The key is to over-communicate,” Gorman says.

Laufhutte ticks off the possibilities. “You’ve got to do some pushes, some pulls,” he says. “Put stuff on the Website. Maintain a blog. Require leaders to repeat criteria after each staff meeting. All those things being said, we have a long way to go before that’s done well.”

What Time Is It There?

Probably the biggest challenge for virtual teams is crossing the time zones.

“Many of us have world clocks online,” Laufhutte says. “My calendar appears in two or three time zones, depending on what I’m doing.” He added that he is trying to find a watch that has global time to help drive the discipline to think globally.

The issue is not so much being on call as being able to call your teams. Time zone management is crucial.

“If you miss the short window of opportunity in the morning, it’s a whole other day before you can get in touch with them,” Gorman says.

Laufhutte routinely doubles up on teleconferences and town halls to ensure that team members 12 time zones away aren’t rousted out of bed.

“We always do two,” he says, except for leadership meetings – and then he rotates the awkward time. “Be sensitive to what time that is,” he urges. “Seven a.m. for me is 7 p.m. in Shanghai. But my employees over there have small children, so their preference is to talk after dinner. They’ll prefer 10 p.m., which is 10 a.m. for me.”

Savvy managers can turn time zone differences to their advantage.

“During a critical project phase, an end-of-day e-mail summary from a member of a team in one location can become early-morning direction to a team member elsewhere,” Addy says.

“It’s like having another 12 hours,” Gorman says.

This balance of benefits and challenges is an intrinsic part of managing virtual teams. Says Laufhutte: “Many times, it’s impossible to have your complete team together. You just have to accept the limitations that exist.”

And make the most of these unique work groups’ diversity and talents. Says Addy: “With the additional resources and additional skills that virtual teams can provide, we can include the best people for the job on a project.”

Q&A

In what ways do managers have to adapt their management style when working with virtual teams?

“The thing that’s really important in a virtual environment is being responsive,” says Greg Albert, vice president of Aerospace’s Airbus business segment. That often translates into more work for the manager – more hands-on work answering and instigating phone calls, e-mails and instant messages, and more work tuning your antenna to pick up the unspoken messages and subtexts that permeate a virtual environment.

In a typical office setting, visual cues abound. A glance around a conference table quickly reveals who is enthusiastic and who has misgivings, as well as reminding you who hasn’t contributed to the discussion. You have to be hyper-vigilant to keep on top of that in a virtual environment.

Some managers sketch out a diagram – a sort of visual cheat sheet – of participants in a telecon to ensure they don’t inadvertently forget someone.

“I don’t do a diagram but occasionally, if there are more people on the phone who typically aren’t involved in these conversations, I’ll jot down their names,” says Cheryl Gorman, director of Aerospace’s regional aircraft original equipment manufacturer (OEM) segment. “If something comes up with that particular issue later, I’ll have a record of who was in attendance.”

Not seeing the bodies is bad enough; not seeing the body language is even worse.

“You have to have your antenna up and watch for early warning signals,” says Andew Hulse, vice president and general manager of Environmental and Water Solutions, part of ACS. “When you start to sense frustration or sense that something is not getting done in a manner you think it should, then the onus is on me to dig into that and figure out what’s going on.”

None of these aspects of management should be a surprise. The ultimate lesson when managing virtual teams is: you have to be yourself – only more so.

Do you have a question you'd like to see addressed in a future issue? Please e-mail your question to Manager's Journal.

Checklist

Ensure that team members don’t feel excluded.

Build a virtual repository of information accessible to all team members through tools like eProject.

Ask yourself what you may be missing as a result of not being able to see body language.

Search for opportunities to encourage far-flung team members to get to know each other.

Over-communicate.

Be sensitive to time-zone differences. If necessary, duplicate town halls and teleconferences.

Team Diversity

To truly ensure that each team member knows they are an important part of the team’s success, a manager must first appreciate the differences each individual brings to the team. By understanding these differences, the team leader will better understand the impact of the differences on team interactions and performance. According to The Guide for Inclusive Leaders by Joerg Schmitz and Nancy Curl, managers should engage in constructive conversations with their teams to:
• Establish rapport
• Overcome discomfort based on perceived differences
• Create open communication
• Diffuse tension
• Create clarity and common
ground
• Gain commitment to act

Studies have shown that including both the “inner” and “outer” circles is critical for stimulating innovation and creativity – one of the key enablers of growth.

For more information, read the “Building a Diverse Team” issue of Manager’s Journal.