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The Virtual Team: The Changing Face of Business

By June Campbell

Virtual teams are the way of the 21st century, according to David Crisp. Crisp is a professional speaker and a former Senior Vice President (SVP) with Canada's leading department store chain.

Crisp knows what he's talking about. With two degrees in organizational psychology, and 25 years experience as a team leader, he's participated on virtual teams with members located in various countries of the globe.

Technology makes it possible. Crisp comments that the mix of communication has shifted from primarily paper based to largely electronic. Crisp's virtual teams moved from a reliance on the lowly telephone and fax to the incorporation of voice mail. Later, applications such as email, web enabled email browsers and web enabled discussions were added to the equation as they became available. "But email is the killer ap," he comments. "It is most successful for everyone, and the largest number of people know how to use it."

Technology is merely a tool. Leadership skills are the key to managing a virtual team, and the leadership skills are different than those needed in the old style of management. In the old model, a manager gave directives to physically present team members. Since the leader had direct control over the members, it was relatively simple to monitor the team's progress. Team members could be disciplined, fired, or rewarded with a bonus depending on performance.

This is not the case with the new leadership model. When working with virtual teams, the ability to influence people via logic, personal balance and common sense is more important than the ability to give orders.

When a team leader is not with the team on a regular basis, team members will use their own judgment. "And in a nutshell, that is the issue with virtual teams," Crisp comments. "Decision making must be shared."

In these days of virtual, high tech teams, the ability to handle people becomes more critical than ever. Crisp's motto is that the best team has a thousand leaders. Everyone on a team should have a piece of the leadership and every team member needs leadership skills in order to function.

Not everyone enjoys working in such an environment, Crisp says. Control oriented, directive executives are used to the older style of giving commands. And, some people are uncomfortable in situations where it isn't clear who is giving the orders.

However, decentralized decision making is crucial. Good leaders can find ways of delegating decision-making powers to team members. "People calling themselves leaders are too prone to spend their time deciding on day to day issues," he points out. "Having a geographically diverse team solves this problem, but certain skills are needed for the leader and the team to be effective."

Most importantly, a virtual team's leader must be good at motivating people.

The key is to find a balance between motivating people and facing reality. If you don't face reality, you end up like Enron, exaggerating your reality to the point that it becomes unethical, Crisp explains. "You have to keep a balance between a brilliant idea and the practical implementation of that idea."

Secondly, a clear vision is essential. Crisp points out that when you can't be present with team members to interpret visions for them on a daily basis, then the vision has to be clearly transparent.

And thirdly, effective virtual leaders must have considerable tolerance for individuals applying their own judgment -- a trait that Crisp says is lacking in team leaders who expect the team members to be little clones of themselves.

Fourthly, good virtual leaders must be consistent in expectations of the guidelines. It's important that all members recognize where you are headed. "It helps them stay on track when you are not at their side barking orders," Crisp laughs.

As the above paragraph suggests, team dynamics are different in a virtual team. As Crisp puts it, there is less potential for the "palace revolution." On the other hand, there is greater potential for individual managers deciding that the team is irrelevant and that they will do as they please. "I sometimes encountered problems with individual managers who would smile and chat nicely when standing in front of me, and when I left the building, they would do the opposite of what we were attempting as a team."

It can be more difficult to identify when virtual team members are being counter-productive to team goals. Moreover, it is often harder to do anything about it. "The nature of their independence is such that either they report to someone else locally, or they're so key to the operation that you won't have any reps at all if you pull them out," Crisp remarks.

The lack of peer pressure can also be a challenge to meeting team goals. In traditional teams, members are influenced by peer pressure. With a virtual team, no peer group is in sight. "When faced with a stubborn individual at a great distance who thinks team concept is a waste of time," Crisp remarks, "Then you have the formula for a problem that can be difficult to resolve."

Despite the drawbacks, Crisp is certain that virtual teams are the way of the 21st century. He notes that in business today, teams are increasingly virtual and more inclusive. People who were once considered outsiders are now part of the team. Today's business might have informal teams consisting of groups such as suppliers, consultants, lawyers, and customers. "Increasingly, businesses are treating customers as part of the team. That is a valuable orientation and certainly more common due to technology."

Crisp isn't the only one to be enthusiastic about virtual teams. Holly Cotter of Maryland (http://www.UltimateMentor.com) is a network marketer with a team of people from all over the world. Cotter hosts a bulletin board, a weekly tele-conference, a weekly online chatroom, and is looking into adding web-conference features so she can hold her tele-conference via a voice chatroom.

When people are interested in succeeding, everything works well, Cotter remarks. "If a person is serious about building a business, they will find a way to talk with you on the phone if and when necessary, to join tele-meetings, to participate in online chatrooms, and to keep in touch with you via email."

The advent of virtual teams is having an unexpected repercussion on language. According to Crisp, these teams are changing the way languages are spoken globally.

"We joke that the world's business language is challenged English," David Crisp laughs. Spoken and written English is becoming more flexible. "We are loosening the rules to include a wider range of people."

It's a brave new world, and adaptation is the challenge for us all.

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