Something which comes up quite frequently in discussions I have with colleagues, particularly those new to working in virtual teams, is whether there is a protocol for establishing contact at the start of participation in a new project.
I have discussed this with a number of colleagues and given it quite a bit of thought and while there are, undoubtedly, some hierarchical legacies within company structures, cultures and generations, largely based on how individuals should interact and who should initiate contact in a home culture setting, there is no hard and fast rule. When the contact must be made across boundaries, this cultural issue becomes more complex, introducing distance and invisible cultural differences.
- Generally, though not always, there is an organisational hierarchy between individuals or teams in the different locations. In these situations, the cultural issues must be considered in the sense that the more senior party, unless trained and aware of cross cultural communication, may well expect their home culture to prevail in terms of who should make the first contact. So, if the senior party is from a higher power distance culture they will typically expect to contact the more junior party when they are ready to do so. However, if the senior party is from a lower power distance culture, they are likely to either expect that the other party will contact them when they are ready or, possibly, they will initiate the contact through a less formal route such as via colleagues etc.
- Time pressures also play a big part in the establishment of communication in new virtual teams. Generally everyone is very busy setting up their part of the project, usually this is a cascaded exercise, starting with the project manager establishing the project scope, schedule, budget, execution methodology etc. then passing the work down to their team, who pass it down to theirs etc. My experience, sadly, has been that in most instances communication protocols, frequencies and methods and, occasionally, the actual fact that there are virtual teams involved, are generally either very low on the list of things these very busy managers consider or else are overlooked completely. This can result in the virtual team members feeling isolated and overlooked which, in turn, can result in them disconnecting from the project either physically or mentally, a risk for the project in general. In these situations, I would strongly recommend that the virtual teams make every effort possible to initiate contact with the balance of the project, either through their own local management or through direct contact with their remote colleagues. Making this contact may be a difficult exercise and, if the project has become fragmented, may be a long task to accomplish, but it may be the only way.
- The establishment of a trusting working relationship early in the project is vital in every respect, not least in the way virtual teams will interact. To start to build this trust, all parties involved must act in a respectful and ethical way toward each other, and each team must be vigilant of the behaviour of all of its team members toward one another. This is especially true if the project starts to develop any form of internal tension that could manifest in a blame culture.
Taking The Initiative
So, who should make first contact and how should it be made?
My recommendations are always that structured alignment sessions should be held, with as much of the global team as possible to be gathered in a single location. While this is often not possible with very large projects due to budgetary constraints, at least representatives from each location should be present at the meetings. Where this is not possible, they should be able to call-in in some way to participate electronically. At these sessions, communication protocols and mechanisms should be discussed and agreed between all parties, either in the general open forum or in working parties of the most closely involved groups, this may even be in as informal a session as over a meal or in a corridor discussion.
If a collective alignment session is not possible or practical, the virtual teams should consider a smaller team alignment exercise of some form. This would entail gathering together the teams who will work closest in a teleconference or video conference so they can agree their methods at a less formal and less managed level. Again, this must be handled in a culturally sensitive way, with all parties being aware of the cultural differences of the others.
Should both of these fail, then it is up to the representatives at each location to establish contact as soon as possible. This can be simply calling to say hello to one another, introduce themselves and start to talk in generalities. This contact should be maintained on a regular basis, so that once the project is ready for the two teams to interact at a more formal level, they know each other enough to start working together quickly and efficiently.
Making Contact Is Not Easy
Establishing a new team relationship is difficult regardless of whether the team is co-located or separated by distance. However, building these teams is vital to the success of any project with virtual team involvement and it is the responsibility of all involved to do everything they can to make it work.
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