The walls are tumbling Down
November 20, 2000
In an era of downsizing, rapid employee turnover and a tight labor market, office space has been revolutionized. Cubicles walls have been knocked down while meeting rooms have expanded into meeting areas, complete with communication centers and kitchens.
Conversation-zapping elevators are being replaced with open, airy escalators.
But in some instances, all this open space just doesn't cut it. It may not be any better than the old maze of cubes, with apartment-sized refrigerators for an entire floor, placed somewhere near the jail cell of a meeting room.
Sometimes a better solution is to just shove everybody out the door and throw away the floor plan.
This seemingly irreverent move has a name: virtual teaming. According to the Virtual Teams Online Forum, hosted by eGroups, (see Recommended Links below), these teams are groups of people that "...work on projects that require communication and collaboration across boundaries of time, space, and organization."
Some companies are embracing telecommuting and flexible officing. Their employees are starting to drive to work every other day - instead of daily. And instead of walking to their cube on autopilot, they grab their workspace on wheels and get started in the nearest available docking area.
But sitting at an open-air desk or docking space for even a few days each week can become annoying. Having to constantly put your hand over the phone and say, "Guys, please hold it down" gets old quickly. (OK, so maybe you aren't quite that polite about it.)
In fact, you've probably had to alter your dress code. To heck with dressing down, lets talk layering – due to the fact that body builder Bob is constantly turning down the thermostat while old lady Higgins is turning it up. Layering is the only option for survival. And office politics, gossiping, and general ranting and raving don’t disappear with the removal of the cubicle walls. Can anyone say, counterproductive?
Better get a GPS
Alternately, there is a counter culture going on, and deservedly so. Businesses are beginning to embrace the “work anytime, anywhere” option for the betterment of their company. And let’s not forget all those contractors and freelancers that are doing it, too. When there is a gap in the skill set needed to get the job done, these people can easily whip together a trusted team to dig in and help out. And trust is the key word here.
Want to put together a virtual team that will produce? It helps to form a solid foundation of trust between team members from the outset. If there isn't any trust, the team members won't effectively collaborate with each other.
Remember when body builder Bob grabbed every ounce of credit from your boss, and a bonus, for your ingenious idea last month? No one blames you for preferring to keep all your innovative and creative ideas under lock and key now. Without trust, it's over before it starts.
Prepare operating agreements on paper as well as discussing them verbally. In other words, create rules of the road and make sure you and your teammates clearly understand them and plan to abide by them.
Have a purpose and make it clear. Dr. Gundry, who has written a paper called "Trust in Virtual Teams," said it succinctly: "Confusion is poison." The entire team should know its destination. Reinforce and expand your purpose when necessary.
Know the goals and deliverables for each person. Don't forget the group of slackers your teacher assigned to your group project in high school or college. Everyone received the same grade for the project you slaved over. The injustice you had to endure. When one or two people don't deliver, the whole project gets thrown off course. It's to the team’s advantage to be sure the goals and outcomes are spelled out for everyone - and have a plan to follow through.
Add some perks
Virtual teams can be assembled from across the country or even the world. Workers can be recruited for their skill instead of just their location – different time zones are not an issue any longer. Now you can tell your clients – truthfully - that your team is working around the clock to get the job done.
There are a few more value-added benefits. Stress goes down and interruptions are fewer. Remember the saying, work hard and play hard? Well, if you can work anywhere at anytime, you can drop everything to watch your daughter star in her soccer game, without the boss laying a guilt trip on you. Later, set up your laptop in a quiet corner in your home, and just get it done (maybe you work better at night anyway).
This flexibility translates into higher productivity. It's also becoming obvious that many times there is a cost savings on travel, office space, and overhead.
How do you want to connect?
You've collected your team of experts, you've set your detailed plan in motion, but how are you going to communicate?
Luckily you have the technical savvy to pull it all together. In fact, you may already be equipped with the obvious basics: cell phone with voice mail, laptop computer connected to the Internet, pager, teleconferences, and of course e-mail. But you may also want to create a virtual project space for the project management, contact management, document sharing, group time management, calendar sharing, and a forum for discussion. There are Internet based options that can be rented, purchased or happen to be absolutely free (see Recommended Links). Remember the downside: unfamiliar applications can have the novices lagging in the learning curve. Recognize this and stay on top of it. You don’t want old lady Higgins, who’s a wiz at most things, losing it out of sheer frustration at not knowing how to dial into a crucial teleconference.
Virtual teaming is being paid well-deserved attention in the corporate world as well as the freelance community - and for good reason. The benefits are great and the drawbacks are few. But it takes a special group of people with specific attributes and skills to make it work with a flourish. Equipped with this information, consider virtual team building in your workplace.
After all, you could virtually be everywhere.
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