When planning how a virtual team is to function, something that is often overlooked is the level of complexity and interaction required between virtual teammates. Understanding complexity in virtual teamwork requires the organisation as a whole to analyse how interdependent the work to be performed by the virtual team is, how much each location will depend on the output of another location, and to plan how they will share and manage the necessary dependencies, how tasks need to be scheduled and how the virtual team personnel will communicate to meet their goals. In some cases this is little different to planning co-located work but the separation of team members makes the planning essential.
Interdependencies and complexity
At its simplest, tasks could have only very small interdependencies, such as design in one place, check in a second, but this level of simplicity is rare in modern virtual teams. It is more common to have design work split between two or more locations, checking possibly in a different location again, a client located remotely to the design teams, and this does not even consider other dependencies such as supply chains etc.
As the number of interfaces increases it becomes harder and harder to manage the communications, then layer onto of that the technical interfaces within the tasks and it becomes easy to see that communication and coordination can easily start to break down without proper planning of both the human communication structures and the technology used to enable their discussions.
Some questions to consider are;
- Should work be split to minimise interdependencies, such that each location has responsibility for delivering a discreet part of the task with minimal coordination at the task boundaries
- How do the leaders and members of each team understand the deadlines within the work, are they clear on when their output is needed as the input to another time critical task?
- Do you have the right skills at the designated location to undertake their assigned task on their own or are there hidden dependencies? Hidden dependencies could include one office outsourcing some of its assigned work to another location because of shortages of personnel or experience to instance
- If the work must be split in a way that creates complex interdependencies, how will these be managed?
Once the initial interdependencies have been identified it is then necessary to work out how the interfaces will be managed. Typically as dependancies increase and become more complex so do the lines of communication, a simple undertaking where there are few interfaces between work will require minimal communication and coordination but work where there are many complicated interfaces will result in similar numbers of interactions, and these interactions need appropriate levels of technology and travel, so a simple level of interaction can normally be managed with simple communications such as telephone, email and where available video meetings but a more complex arrangement may need desk top sharing functionality, frequent video meetings with multiple parties, reasonably frequent face to face reviews and above all else personnel who are committed to maintaining this level of intensity of communication through the whole project.
With substantial practical experience in virtual teams and ongoing academic research into the motivations of teams to communicate Ulfire is happy to help with any questions on how best to understand your team structure and complexity from the planning process to analysis of existing teams.
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