This episode is about virtual teams. Many of us are part of virtual teams and we have felt the pain of virtual teams that don’t work well. Virtual teams are becoming more common in organizations and especially product management and innovation where the product team is often scattered across multiple time zones.
I found someone who has worked with and learned from hundreds of virtual teams. He is currently the PMO manager at Cisco Systems, where he leads virtual teams all around the world.
He is also the author of two Amazon best-selling books. The first one is Influencing Virtual Teams: 17 Tactics That Get Things Done with Your Remote Employees. His most recent book is Don’t Reply All: 18 Email Tactics That Help You Write Better Emails and Improve Communication with Your Team. His name is Hassan Osman.
In the interview we focus on:
- the nature of virtual teams,
- building trust, and
- what you need to do to run an effective virtual team meeting.
Practices and Ideas for Product Managers and Innovators
Summary of questions discussed:
- What are virtual teams? A virtual team is simply a team that is spread across either time or physical location, or both. It would have been a lot easier to recognize a virtual team 15-20 years ago, when email and internet was starting out. However, today, I could argue that every single team is a virtual team. Let me give you an example. I have a friend who is the CEO of a startup company in Cambridge. They have an office in Harvard Square. One room is a big open floor space where everyone is sitting facing the wall. I said to him, “It must be really cool if you need to ask one of your team members to do something for you. You just swivel in your chair and yell it out.” And he said, “Well actually, no.” He sends them an email. I found that a little bit intriguing and asked why. He shared that it is easier to track what information was exchanged than relying on the verbal interactions and that it avoided interruptions. Even though the team members sit next to each other, they are interacting as a virtual team.
- What are some of the common issues encountered managing virtual teams? Simple issues for some virtual teams are dealing with different time zones and speaking accents. Another can be the lack of facial expressions and body language cues. Obviously when you’re dealing with either asynchronous communication, such as IM or email, you’re not getting that flavor of the nonverbal communication. That can result in miscommunication or misinterpretation of intent, which could create conflict. Using webcams, for example, can help. Another thing that really affects virtual teams is that lack of cohesion. We as human beings are very social in nature, and with virtual teams, you may be working alone much of the time. You don’t have the same level of interaction that you have with co-located physical teams.
- What are your experiences building trust in virtual teams? Trust is a very nebulous concept. It’s not like an on-off switch where you either have trust or you don’t have trust. It’s more of a spectrum where there’s varying degrees of trust among the team and among managers and their direct employees. So it becomes this very tough thing to manage, right? Because it’s very tough to manage, it’s very hard to kind of nail down. How do you define it? Trust is equal to reliability plus likeability. Meaning, if you want to increase trust among your team, you either have to increase reliability, or increase likeability, or both. Reliability is the simple concept that judges if a person who has been given a job can actually do that job. Do they have the proper skill set to actually accomplish what they need to accomplish? But the other factor, the likeability factor, is something that a lot of managers and leaders overlook. It’s actually quite important from a psychological perspective. So, trust is found to increase whenever you like someone. The more you like someone, the more trust you have.
- What should a product manager do to facilitate a virtual team meeting? The key work occurs before the actual meeting. There are five steps. They may sound simple, but they are not commonly used, wasting enormous meeting time. The steps are:
- Decide on need – meetings should be a last resort. Make sure there is a clear need for the meeting.
- Define the objective – determine what the outcome of the meeting is, such as brainstorming ideas for a product concept.
- Who needs to be involved – meeting participation should be limited to those with a true vested interest in the objective of the meeting.
- Agenda – list the topics that need to be addressed, ensuring they are aligned with the objective.
- Preparation – tell the participants what they need to prepare before the meeting to increase the effectiveness of the meeting.
- Hassan’s blog, The Couch Manager
- How to Manage & Influence Your Virtual Team course at Udemy
- Influencing Virtual teams: 17 Tactics that Get Things Done with Your Remote Employees – Hassan’s book for virtual teams
- Don’t Reply All: 18 Email Tactics That Help You Write Better Emails and Improve Communication with Your Team
“There is no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs.”
Thank you for being an Everyday Innovator and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.