Managers at Work
"I'm managing a global team with members in China, Europe and the U.S., and while the team is making continual progress on the project, I'm finding that some of the U.S.-based team members are dominating the virtual meetings and shaping things according to their interests. They are not including the others, who have a lot of expertise. What do you suggest to improve communications and make it more equitable?"
There's no question that virtual teams are their own challenge. You are not in a face-to-face situation, so you don't have all the information you would normally have to build a successful work team.
"We get the time to read each other in a face-to-face meeting," says Yael Zofi, author of a new book, "A Manager's Guide to Virtual Teams." "We also don't have the context. I don't know what's happening in your office and I don't know if you're multitasking because we're virtual."
Another issue in this scenario involves communications across different cultures, geographic boundaries and time zones. "There are some intercultural disconnects sometimes, and this makes communications very challenging," she says.
Zofi advocates establishing a "team code" or road map or operating plan that can set some expectations for acceptable behavior, activities and priorities. This can be established when the team is formed or during the life of the project team. The code can cover anything from multitasking to voicemail protocol and tons of topics in between.
In this situation, a team code might spell out the role of a meeting facilitator. The job can rotate among team members or belong to someone who is hired, she says, noting that it wouldn't have to be a manager.
"The facilitator's job is to set the tone for the meeting. If someone is dominating the conversation and it's running over, he or she can say, 'This is a great conversation, but let's take it off line with the three people who are dealing with that issue' and move the meeting forward," Zofi says.
Another strategy a facilitator can use to address the meeting dominator issue is to gently shift the conversation, posing a question to the whole group and asking individuals to comment, she says.
In some cases, those who tend to dominate meetings are subject-matter experts. "You might think about coaching from the side door. You can say, 'I know you are a subject-matter expert on this outsourcing project, but here's how it's coming across,'" she says. "With dominating personalities, it's important to deal with it in the moment, then possibly explore it later."
Besides those that dominate, other problem participants in virtual teams are what Zofi calls "silent riders" or "lost riders." Silent riders are the team members who are quiet but not participating, sometimes engaging in "passive-aggressive behavior," she says. Lost riders are team members who aren't available; they tend to avoid calls and push deadlines back, causing delays.
Ideally, your virtual team would meet in person at least once to set up the code, but often that is not possible, she says. "Most of the time when teams are set up, the ramp-up time is instant."
When they set up their team codes, virtual teams might add more detail than in-person teams because of all the "intangibles" inherent in virtual situations, Zofi writes on her blog. A sample code on multitasking, for example, would include turning off cellphone ringers or buzzers, email notifications and MP3 players during calls and specify when to use the "mute" button during phone conferences.
One virtual manager at a semiconductor company, for instance, agreed that team members could work on their laptops while listening during long meetings, she wrote. "They were not forced to participate unless something was relevant to their part of the project."
In her blog (http://aim-strategies.com), Zofi offered some questions that could be asked by a virtual team in putting a code together:
- How often will we communicate?
- Which issues require what communication?
- Who will be notified and how?
- When is it appropriate to escalate issues?
- What is the etiquette and protocol for participation? When someone is speaking, when should the mute button be used?
- How does the team want to keep everyone informed? (Who takes and distributes minutes? Do roles rotate?)
- Which meetings are mandatory, and which are not?
- How will the team handle different time zones?
- What are acceptable timeframes for online communications-returning emails, telephone calls and rescheduling?
- How should email messages be structured? (What should be flagged, and what should be written in subject lines?)
- How do we handle trust breakdowns and communication gaps and stay focused?
- By whom and how will the work be reviewed?
- How do we hold each other accountable for the team code guidelines so communication doesn't break down?
Managers at Work is a bimonthly column exploring the issues and challenges facing managers. Contact Kathleen Driscoll with questions or comments by phone at (585) 249-9295 or by email at email@example.com
10/7/11 (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.