Friday, April 22, 2005

Questions about teams in a distributed world

Perhaps your work groups are like the ones I'm part of—spread around the globe, with people you'll never see. Someone posted a question about the nature of teams on the odnet mailing list. Here are some issues I see as important from a business and organization development perspective; what do you see?

The teams I've been involved in for the last, oh, 7+ years inside my last company and now in my own business have almost all been distributed. I think many of the same principles still apply, but I think we need to address them more quickly.

Here are some sample issues (all solvable, I think, at least as well as f2f):


  • How do you form a team quickly, because the people were assigned last week, we've got to work today, and we're finished next month?

  • How do you do team and people development, when time frames are so compressed? (For some of us, the model of a "local team" with occasional work done across geographical boundaries hasn't been around in years, so it's not obvious one can fall back to the "matrixed team" organizational model. Often each team member is sitting in geographical isolation from everyone else.)

  • How do you form a team effectively when the people will never see each other and may never engage in real-time (synchronous) interaction?

  • What skills and tools do you really need to foster effective communications in this sort of environment, as compared to a f2f workplace? What are the gaps, and how can you overcome them? (For example, writing and verbal speaking skills may increase in importance, when communication that involves talk and gestures is limited.)

  • How do you manage business and personal needs when some are normally sleeping when others are normally working (and vice versa)?

  • What human needs go unaddressed in such a work society, and how can we help people address them in other suitable ways?

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4 Comments:

Blogger Charlie Hendricksen said...

The answers to the posed questions will depend on the nature of the work to be done. For instance, if there is a short lead time you need a set of tools that may demand synchronous collaboration. On the other hand if you are in a knowledge-building effort, then you have time to develop an asynchronous environment that can support flexible schedules and reflection. I've been developing an environment for geographicly fragmented research teams for the last decade, and I have to tell you that, while a good set of tools is available, the will to employ them has not been demonstrated by any team. The principal barrier is custom and media competition. File swappers will continue to privately swap files, and hallway conversations will go unrecorded. Teams will break down into subteams that do not communicate. The discipline and commitment to run a true distributed knowledge-building collaboration is [perhaps] beyond any team constituted in a liberal culture.

01 May, 2005 11:48  
Blogger Bill Harris said...

Charlie, thanks for your insights. I agree that it's harder to work with work groups that have dispersed subgroups, with several at each place, than with totally dispersed groups where each person sits alone.

04 May, 2005 11:39  
Blogger Rosanna Tarsiero said...

Bill, you asked many questions, to which I'll try to give some answers.


"How do you form a team quickly, because the people were assigned last week, we've got to work today, and we're finished next month?"

How do you form it in real life? Quickly ;) So, use icebreakers of any kind, provided they aren't to "nosey".


"How do you do team and people development, when time frames are so compressed?"

In a compressed way! Actually, a distributed team works better in compressed frames, because the work progresses when some components are asleep.


"How do you form a team effectively when the people will never see each other and may never engage in real-time (synchronous) interaction?"

Choosing people that prefer to interact via written communication!


"What skills and tools do you really need to foster effective communications in this sort of environment, as compared to a f2f workplace? What are the gaps, and how can you overcome them?"

What is the gap between painting and playing piano? No gap, only differences. They can be addressed by *designing* the team in advance and recruiting only persons that fit that design.


"How do you manage business and personal needs when some are normally sleeping when others are normally working (and vice versa)?"

Teaching team components how they aren't the center of the universe, and it's unreasonable to demand others to rush at their demands. Following an Eastern team pattern (those populations are winning on this because they aren't as individualistic as we are... so either we curb individualism and have some hope to win in online settings, or keep our individualism and go on doing things "just" f2f).


"What human needs go unaddressed in such a work society, and how can we help people address them in other suitable ways?"

In many cultures, the work society is all geared onto job, performance and incentives. Giving "wellness bonuses" (such as gift certificate for books, spa retreats, cinema tickets, etc) to those employees that are able to mantain a healthy work-life balance would be a good start.

06 May, 2005 18:31  
Blogger Bill Harris said...

Hello, Rosanna. Thanks for your contribution to this thread. Your "wellness bonuses" reminded me of incentives I've seen some managers provide to encourage people to "get a life," including such simple things as telling them to go home at the end of a day and, perhaps most importantly, leading by example.

12 May, 2005 10:55  

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