Issue # 8 - Working Virtually

by Randi Brenowitz

Issue # 8

Brenowitz Consulting is pleased to bring you this issue of Tools for Teams, our bi-monthly electronic newsletter.

Each issue will explore one of the central themes of today's challenging business environment. We will present our current thinking, relevant readings, book reviews, and other resources--all designed to give you practical tools to improve productivity through teamwork and collaboration

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Issue # 8 – Working Virtually

In Working Virtually: Managing People for Successful Virtual Teams and Organizations (Stylus Publishing, 2001), Trina Hoefling explores how to realign your organization in order to fully support virtual work, and what technology is needed to create a collaborative virtual environment. Although there are many books about virtual work, Hoefling's is unique in that it concentrates on the team aspects of this work arrangement. She looks at many of the factors facing traditional teams and explores how they are the same or different for virtual teams.

The best chapter is Chapter 3 – Expanding Emotional Bandwidth: Building Trust in the Virtual Team. The inability to build trust in virtual environments is one of the most stated concerns to virtual teaming. The establishment of trust is one of the areas of virtual work that is primarily people-dependent and cannot be sped up by better technology. Hoefling believes, however, that technology can support communication and connection, which are two major drivers of trust. The greater the group's commitment to the purpose of the team and to the virtual environment, the more likely team members will see virtual trust as possible. It is important, therefore, to get buy-in to the goal of the team and familiarity with the tools and technology that will be used for virtual teaming.

It is easier to avoid conflict in virtual teams, as it is easy to let the physical distance create interpersonal distance too. However, the more quickly, honestly, and respectfully conflict is handled, the greater is the likelihood of trust being built or restored (Bishop & Scot, SHRM Foundation Research, 1997). It is also easier for virtual team leaders to avoid recognizing conflict on their teams. After citing Bishop & Scot's research, Hoefling suggests that team leaders pay attention to conflict situations even more closely than on co-located teams and work to resolve it as soon as possible.

Hoefling reminds us that a virtual team is like any community in that its culture is a product of shared stories, norms, rituals, and experiences. Leaders of virtual teams must provide ample opportunity for teams to create a shared history together. Co-located teams naturally fall into rhythms together – coffee breaks, regularly scheduled meetings, saying good morning and good night, and lunches with other team members. The predictability of these rhythms can add to the trust on the team. Virtual teams also need these rhythms. Internal chat rooms, pre-meeting check-ins, and regular patterns of synchronous, asynchronous, and face-to-face meetings will help create them. Taking the time for informal conversations is possible and necessary even in the highest-tech environment and it will help build trust on the team.

As with co-located teams, fulfilling commitments and keeping agreements over time are all key to building and maintaining trust. Goals, milestones, tasks, and agreements must be clear in order to increase the probability of their being met when team members are not located together and each is working "alone." In Hoefling's "alchemy of virtual trust," communication, performance, and integrity combine to create trust.

Other chapters explore the feedback, meetings, decision-making, and communication infrastructure needs of virtual teams including an overview of the tools and technologies that can facilitate them. If you've already been working virtually for some time, they will serve as a good reminder. If you're new at this, these chapters give important guidelines for virtual team members and leaders.

Hoefling also has a readiness survey for both individuals and organizations. I was disappointed with those as they come from the assumption that we have a choice of whether or not to work virtually. Given the market drivers she describes in her introduction, I don't think there is much choice. Most of us work virtually at least part of the time already and the trend seems to be increasing.

Today companies must go outside brick-and-mortar corporate walls to recruit and retain the best talent and profitable partnerships. A global marketplace demands global companies. Customers demand products and service support that is adaptive, flexible, and integrated. Independent and project-specific contractors are a fundamental part of the workforce. Cross-organizational strategic alliances are commonplace. Real estate costs prohibit boundless expansion. More and more people are unwilling or unable to relocate and in our post 9/11 world, travel has become less appealing. These factors combine together to encourage organizations and teams to explore virtual work. Working Virtually can help achieve success in that exploration.

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Additional Resources

GEO Group Strategic Services, Inc. offers a unique blend of traditional and on-line tools based on the concepts discussed in Winning in Fast Time to create strategic action with virtual or co-located teams. Contact them at 949-250-9060 or See issue # 7 – Winning in Fast Time.

HeiterConnect ( runs a series of workshops and free virtual mini-camps related to virtual teams. I will be featured at the mini-camp on April 4 that will focus on Virtual Meeting Etiquette.

"Leveraging Cross-Functional/Cross-Cultural Collaborative Assets: Distance, Time Zone, and Culture," a downloadable article by Susan Schwartz available at

Startwright ( has assembled a comprehensive list of links and articles on virtual teams and virtual team management.

"Social Space as an Essential Element of an Effective Online Work Environment," a downloadable article by Valerie Bock available at

"Communication and Trust in Global Virtual Teams" a downloadable study by Jarvenpaa & Leidner at

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What's New at Brenowitz Consulting


Friday, April 4, 2003
1-2 PM Eastern time; 10-11 AM Pacific time
HeiterConnect Virtual Mini-Camp
Virtual Meeting Etiquette

Thursday, April 10, 2003
Institute for Supply Management
Satellite broadcast
Leadership Skills & Team Essentials for Supply Management

In person:

Monday, April 21, 2003
Project Management Institute
Mountain View, CA
Team Essentials & Project Management

Wednesday, June 25, 2003
IEEE Engineering Management Society
Santa Clara Valley Chapter
Sunnyvale, CA
Virtual Engineering Project Teams

In writing:



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