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In today's world, many people work when and where they like. This is one of the biggest challenges being faced by managers. How virtual teams can be managed successfully is something Fabian Etter, the Head of Future Work Experience at Swisscom, knows all about. His team is responsible for developing tomorrow's digital world of work, and for advising people who work in highly decentralised structures.
Fabian Etter, what are the characteristics of a virtual team?
There are different types of virtual teams. On the one hand, people do their jobs in different workplaces, and therefore work together virtually. This is something that is becoming more and more widespread. On the other hand, teams can be composed of members from all different areas of the organisation, and therefore form a transversal collaboration. What is important in both cases: setting joint targets, sharing a way of working, and building an identity that everyone relates to.
It sounds like there’s much more work involved in managing a virtual team.
Virtual teams need to overcome a variety of challenges. For example, it can be more difficult to build up a shared identity when the team members see each other relatively seldom. Building a team comprised of members from all over the organisation can also result in these team members contributing all sorts of different perspectives and interests.
Within the framework provided by the transformation program developed by Swisscom’s B2B division, I managed a team that encompassed a variety of representatives from our own ranks and the various divisions, such as Business, HR and Communication. These people all work from different locations. Working hard as a team to a create a shared vision, and setting goals we would all be pursuing and to which everyone can contribute, was a very important aspect of the program. The second challenge to overcome was the availability of the team members. All of them already had plenty of responsibilities within the line organisation. For me, the most important thing was to show them, and their supervisors, why they should get involved in the transformation program. This meant putting more effort into talking to people.
How do you prevent members of a virtual team simply doing their own thing?
As I mentioned, these shared goals help to create an identity. When members of a team are working from different locations, it becomes especially important to know who is currently working on what and who has which expertise. Modern collaboration platforms help us to share all this information with each other. Using e-mail as a channel is, however, too asynchronous and inefficient for this purpose. Instead, we use News Feeds on our Collaboration Platform so that everyone can contribute to the discussion. OneNote helps us to track assignments. We also live by the principle of smart work by holding virtual conferences. All these means of communication allow me to see whether we are well on track, and which problems need to be tackled.
My current team provides customers with support in anchoring a culture of “smart work” both on a technical and cultural level. We have introduced straightforward reporting mechanisms within the team, these being ones that identify which activities the member are working on, and what they have learned.
«Modern collaboration platforms help us to share all this information with each other.»
Can technology also present a stumbling block? Wouldn’t everyone make more progress working individually than having to report everything to a system?
Of course, it always involves some extra work, at least when starting off. It is important to explicitly address the use of technology, and continue this process of reflection. It is also a matter of consolidating the goals we are pursuing with the tools within the team.
We do, however, also realise that modern Collaboration Tools open up new opportunities and make collaboration much more straightforward. And fewer e-mails means more capacity for other business.
What is the manager’s duty within this process?
It’s important for a supervisor of a team with an obviously virtual nature to build up a culture of trust, while, at the same time, exemplifying transparency and “smart work”.
Employees are motivated by seeing that their contribution to the News Feed is being read, commented on and liked. The supervisor also needs maintain an appreciable presence here.
How does everyone find their place in the virtual team?
That starts with setting the right goals to pursue. Everyone needs to know why he or she is in the team, and which tasks and role they are responsible for. If I am aiming to successfully manage a virtual team, I will only succeed if I gain the trust of the employees. To do this, we need to share values, to enjoy what we are working on and to be motivated to share information with each other – whether physically or virtually. At the end of the day, everyone is glad to celebrate success.