How Product Managers and Innovators can Influence Virtual Teams

by Chad McAllister

Product Managers Leading Virtual TeamsA virtual team traditionally has meant a team with members who are geographically dispersed, working in different locations and often across time zones.  Many of us are part of such virtual teams and we have felt the pain of virtual teams that don’t work well.

There are also elements of virtual teamwork that have started to exist even in geographically co-located teams — even with teams sharing the same physical office. An example is the growing use of tools like Slack for instant messaging that team members use to communicate with each other regardless if they sit next to the person or if they are many time zones away. Another example is using a web conference tool to talk with a colleague who is located in another part of the same office building. More teams, regardless of physical location, are exhibiting virtual teamwork characteristics.

Product managers and innovators need to work effectively with virtual teams, but the challenges can be significant. To learn how to be more effective, I found Hassan Osman, who has worked with and learned from hundreds of virtual teams. He is currently a PMO manager at Cisco Systems, where he leads virtual teams around the world.

He is also the author of two Amazon best-selling books. The first one is Influencing Virtual Teams: 17 Tactics That Get Things Done with Your Remote Employees. His most recent book is Don’t Reply All: 18 Email Tactics That Help You Write Better Emails and Improve Communication with Your Team. His name is Hassan Osman and I discussed

In the discussion we focus on:

  1. the nature of virtual teams,
  2. building trust, and
  3. what you need to do to run an effective virtual team meeting.

 

Below is a summary of questions discussed follow by a link to the interview.

 

What are virtual teams?

A virtual team is simply a team that is spread across either time or physical location, or both. It would have been a lot easier to recognize a virtual team 15-20 years ago, when email and internet was starting out. However, today, I could argue that every single team is a virtual team. Let me give you an example. I have a friend who is the CEO of a startup company in Cambridge. They have an office in Harvard Square. One room is a big open floor space where everyone is sitting facing the wall. I said to him, “It must be really cool if you need to ask one of your team members to do something for you. You just swivel in your chair and yell it out.” And he said, “Well actually, no.” He sends them an email. I found that a little bit intriguing and asked why. He shared that it is easier to track what information was exchanged than relying on the verbal interactions and that it avoided interruptions. Even though the team members sit next to each other, they are interacting as a virtual team.

 

What are some of the common issues encountered managing virtual teams?

Simple issues for some virtual teams are dealing with different time zones and speaking accents. Another can be the lack of facial expressions and body language cues. Obviously when you’re dealing with either asynchronous communication, such as IM or email, you’re not getting that flavor of the nonverbal communication. That can result in miscommunication or misinterpretation of intent, which could create conflict. Using webcams, for example, can help. Another thing that really affects virtual teams is that lack of cohesion. We as human beings are very social in nature, and with virtual teams, you may be working alone much of the time. You don’t have the same level of interaction that you have with co-located physical teams.

 

What are your experiences building trust in virtual teams?

Trust is a very nebulous concept. It’s not like an on-off switch where you either have trust or you don’t have trust. It’s more of a spectrum where there’s varying degrees of trust among the team and among managers and their direct employees. So it becomes this very tough thing to manage, right? Because it’s very tough to manage, it’s very hard to kind of nail down. How do you define it? Trust is equal to reliability plus likeability. Meaning, if you want to increase trust among your team, you either have to increase reliability, or increase likeability, or both. Reliability is the simple concept that judges if a person who has been given a job can actually do that job. Do they have the proper skill set to actually accomplish what they need to accomplish? But the other factor, the likeability factor, is something that a lot of managers and leaders overlook. It’s actually quite important from a psychological perspective. So, trust is found to increase whenever you like someone. The more you like someone, the more trust you have.

 

What should a product manager do to facilitate a virtual team meeting?

The key work occurs before the actual meeting. There are five steps. They may sound simple, but they are not commonly used, wasting enormous meeting time. The steps are:

  1. Decide on need – meetings should be a last resort. Make sure there is a clear need for the meeting.
  2. Define the objective – determine what the outcome of the meeting is, such as brainstorming ideas for a product concept.
  3. Who needs to be involved – meeting participation should be limited to those with a true vested interest in the objective of the meeting.
  4. Agenda – list the topics that need to be addressed, ensuring they are aligned with the objective.
  5. Preparation – tell the participants what they need to prepare before the meeting to increase the effectiveness of the meeting.

 

Listen to the interviewheadphones-2 with Hassan on the Everyday Innovator Podcast.

 

image credit: depositphotos.com

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Chad McAllisterChad McAllister, PhD is a product innovation guide, innovation management educator, and recovering engineer. He leads Product Innovation Educators, which trains product managers to create products customers love. He also hosts The Everyday Innovator weekly podcast, sharing knowledge from innovation thought leaders and practitioners. Follow @ChadMcAllister

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