Building your virtual team

Imagine the following scenario: Your New York travel firm is working with several telecom carriers to upgrade connections for a new online reservations system. The application vendor is in California, and your hotel and airline partners are distributed around the globe. You’re having trouble integrating each firm’s legacy applications, and the project is weeks behind deadline.

Does this type of challenge sound familiar? If you’re an IT professional, the answer probably is yes. And, you likely agree that a situation like that can have serious consequences. Is it possible to turn the situation around considering all the obstacles?

The answer is yes.

Let’s take a moment to analyze this scenario. The team is geographically disperse; and members face time zone challenges, cultural differences, possible language barriers, distance and a very frustrated team.

The IT environment tends to be intense, high-pressure and deadline-driven. If a team is not functioning as a cohesive unit, addressing the numerous, complex technical issues in an effective manner will be frustrating at best. Think of the computer as an analogy; the best hardware is next to useless if the software is not compatible.

As a professional corporate trainer who has coached more than 1,000 project managers in North America, I have found that the most effective starting point when it comes to opening lines of communication is to create a team operating agreement. The goal is to combine the hard and soft aspects of project work in a unified way.

Put it in writing

A team operating agreement sets the rules of engagement for the way a team works together. It might include how people communicate as a team, what are acceptable meeting protocols and how people make decisions. However, this in itself is insufficient. To increase the likelihood of project success there needs to be a link to the actual project.

When your staff works in a virtual environment, it becomes even more critical for project teams to address the following four items:

— Commit to the scope of the project.

— Agree to time schedules.

— Recognize the risks involved.

— Agree to share information on a regular basis.

A team operating agreement guides a team’s actions and interactions by describing the set of behavioral norms the team agrees to abide by. They can be formal or informal. If a team does not deliberately create them, they will develop on their own, which might be problematic. Norms that are not clearly defined and accepted by a team can lead to conflict, misunderstandings and, ultimately, reduced productivity.

Geographic, ethnic and cultural differences play a part of how effectively individuals and teams operate. Awareness of these differences is vital if communication is to be clear, honest and properly directed.

A team operating agreement helps a group in trouble because it clearly states what is expected of team members in relation to their own work and their responsibility to the team. This forged consensus eliminates ambiguity and second-guessing, prevents people from stepping on the toes of others and lets team members work more effectively. In the end, it solidifies trust and ensures team members are doing not only what best suits their particular talents but also taking an active role in team synergy.

A team operating agreement can be as inclusive as a team wants. The more inclusive it is, the less chance for miscommunication, conflict and lost opportunities. Ideally, it should be created at the beginning of a project or when a new team forms.

It could include these categories:

1. Meeting protocols

— Our meetings begin and end on time. We attempt to schedule meetings to accommodate people in different time zones. We take into consideration holidays of the different cultures. We respect and listen to what other people are saying on the call and we don’t hold more than one conversation at a time. We will give one week’s notice to the team if a member is unable to attend.

2. Communication.

— We check e-mails twice a day. We have a no-scroll policy on all e-mails (one screen full). We call into the office once a day. We handle conflict directly with the person concerned and work to resolve it. We identify and communicate possible conflicts clearly and immediately. We give feedback in a timely manner, respecting cultural sensitivities. We value confidentiality.

3. Decision making.

— We select appropriate processes for making decisions. We identify the decision maker. We select appropriate processes for problem solving. We express ourselves freely. We have respect for each other’s input, and we identify who has ownership of the task. We set achievable standards for task completion. We share information and knowledge willingly.

A team operating agreement can be very effective in focusing the energies and resources of an IT project team. By ensuring that all members work seamlessly on a human level, the prospect of devising solutions to complex technical issues under tight, stressful deadlines becomes much better.

Sookman is principal of Virtual Team Builders, an organization that specializes in helping geographically dispersed teams complete their projects on time and under budget. She can be reached at

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