Making 'face time' count for virtual teams

8th June 2005, Comments 0 comments

One of the primary issues in effectively managing virtual teams is, ironically, ensuring sufficient 'face time'. But how often and for what reasons should a virtual team meet? And how can leaders see to it that the meeting is valuable?

Once the virtual team is built, relationships are often strong

Stéphane Brahy, director of intercultural services at Cendant Mobility, has noticed that a "vast majority" of the clients he works with have "increased the number of multicultural teams that work virtually." But there is still a lot to be learned in effectively managing such teams.

"I'm always relatively dumb-founded how few teams go for the depth that is needed to get to performance," said Brahy.

When virtual teams are created, meeting face-to-face is the best way to lay the foundation for the work of the group, says Carolyn Ryffel, senior manager of trainer development and curriculum design for Cendant Mobility's intercultural services.

During the initial meeting, the team should define itself and create a charter for its work. The charter should address issues such as how the team will communicate, decision-making approaches and hierarchical structure.

"It makes a big difference when you can all come together, meet face-to-face and really get to know someone other than through email and voice mail," said Ryffel.

Team building

But not everyone agrees that meeting in person early on is imperative to developing a solid team. In face-to-face meetings, impressions are made based on what's visible and there is a tendency to focus on the differences, said Anita D Bhappu, an assistant professor of management and organisations at the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. "The differences act as filters when the communication returns to a virtual format," she said.

"To avoid that filtering process, it might be better for teams to interact virtually, using email or chat," she said. "Simply because that type of environment starves people of these queues, we tend to be more focussed on the content."

Bhappu has conducted a number of studies on virtual teams and has found that it does take longer for online teams to develop relationships. But once the relationships are built, the team is often strong.

The strength of face-to-face teams is cultivated around social interaction. But, says Bhappu, when there is conflict within a face-to-face team, the oneness is more tenuous.

"The very same reasons that make them feel together make them feel not together," she said, adding that the conflict can become personal. 

Virtual teams, on the other hand, are often less personally attached and able to reflect more thoughtfully during a conflict, she said.

"The performance benefits [of a virtual team] far outweighs the sense of comfort that people gain meeting face-to-face," Bhappu said.

Regularly scheduled live meetings

Though there may be differing opinions on when to meet in person, it is widely agreed that regularly scheduled live contact is nonetheless essential for a virtual team. The frequency and duration will depend on the needs of the team but the key is in making and keeping in-person meetings.

Before the end of the first live meeting, the team should schedule its next meeting, said Brahy of Cendant Mobility. This will be an opportunity to address un-resolved issues and re-establish relationships.

Virtual team-workers tend to be more focussed on content

The reality, however, is that live meetings can get delayed or even cancelled entirely, due to scheduling conflicts or budget constraints. But allowing practical limitations to get in the way can send the wrong message to the team.

"By cancelling those meetings, you're really telling your team that those issues will never be resolved," said Brahy.

Half-life of communication

Matt Simons runs operations in India for Chicago-based software developer ThoughtWorks and frequently works with virtual teams. At the start of every project, a communication plan is designed and includes when the distributed team will meet in person.

The dates are based on the notion of half-life of communication, which comes from MIT professor Thomas Allen, said Simons.

"The core of the concept is that after working together face-to-face, the frequency of communication between two people falls logarithmically once they are physically separated," he said.

Because of this, "we try to refresh and reset these relationships."

At the start of the project, the first in-person meeting will be longer than the others to allow for establishing relationships. After that, live meetings are ideally scheduled every six to eight weeks, with the locations rotated between work sites.

When face time does occur, it is up to the leader to make sure it is of value, says Fred Crandall, an HR consultant with Watson Wyatt in Chicago.

"It involves more than just coming and taking the tour," he said.

[In the second article on virtual teams, Expatica HR examines issues virtual teams confront on a day-to-day basis, such as cultural awareness, relationship building and effective communication across time zones.]

June 2005

Jennifer Hamm is a freelance journalist who frequently writes about international business issues. She can be contacted through her website at


Subject: Managing virtual teams, virtual working, virtual teams.

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