A number of organisations I have spoken with have faced issues relating to the travel costs associated with running virtual teams. Often they have only recently moved to a distributed team approach and, in doing so, have not considered the virtual team travel costs associated with maintaining strong communications and coordination between groups in their project or organisation. These costs were not something they had to consider in co-located operations, so in moving to a different structure they are not necessarily aware of the need to allow for some of the additional costs.
Why face to face is important in virtual teams
Meeting ones work colleagues face to face is a given in any co-located work environment, it is a very human expectation that helps colleagues develop a working relationship built on more than business transactions. Research has shown that meeting from time to time in a virtual work environment will allow colleagues to build their relationships through spending time getting to know one another, sharing some personal information and experiences and being able to talk on more expansive subjects. As such, some level of travel costs to allow key individuals to meet face to face from time to time should be expected in these structures, but the questions are, how much and who should control it.
Virtual team travel costs will vary wildly between organisations, structures and travel policies, but they should reflect a sensible calendar for appropriate numbers of personnel to meet. Multi centre virtual teams will often try to meet at the location where most of the key individuals are based, thus reducing the overall travel budget though at the same time sometimes placing a heavy travel load on some individuals while exempting others from any travel, others will rotate the locations of the meetings to ensure that all parties have to travel at some stage. Whatever approach is chosen, it should be sensible and appropriate for the needs of your structure. Equally, the duration of the travel should allow for some non structured meetings and discussions to take place, so rather than all of the parties meeting for one day then dispersing back to their home bases, allow for them to have some time to meet in sub groups, meet other team members and spend some social tie building those all important relationships.
Who owns the budgets?
Ownership of travel budgets can be an interesting and indeed a challenging discussion in some organisations and projects. Some feel the budget should be owned by the corporate management, others by the clients of projects, whether internal or external. At Ulfire, we would argue strongly though that the budget should be owned by whoever is responsible for the overall outcomes of whatever the endeavour is delivering, that person or group is the one who should know more that any other what travel needs to be done and who needs to do it, they should be aware of the needs for both relationship building and periodic technical meetings, and if not directly aware should have trust in their reports to keep them appraised of any needs. Taking control of the virtual team travel costs outside of the delivery team and giving it to others essentially limits the delivery team’s ability to meet their objectives and allows others potentially not as aware of the overall needs to exert uninformed control.
Virtual team travel costs
So, in summary, organisations need to plan their travel needs and cost them appropriately to facilitate both the technical and the relationship meetings they need to deliver their outcomes. The travel should be planned to deliver both the best commercial outcome for the undertaking and also to give a fair and balanced travel burden on personnel, and the control of the travel budget should reside with those responsible for the delivery of the outcomes, not with their managers, clients or other external parties.
As specialists in virtual team dynamics Ulfire can help your organisation understand its expected structure, personnel interactions and to plan for its potential travel costs. Please contact us to discuss how we may be able to assist.
If you want to keep up to date with future articles, please enter your details below to subscribe to our regular newsletter.