Klein researches ways to make virtual teams work

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, firms like those that populated the World Trade Center's twin towers are more likely to set up duplicate facilities in geographically dispersed locations, says Janice A. Klein, Senior Lecturer in Management Science. This will lead to more use of virtual teams, which present risks and challenges of their own.

Klein believes that, having been alerted to the big risk inherent in operating just one location, service firms are now more likely to follow the example of manufacturers, who have long set up redundant locations to assure continued production in case a catastrophe struck one facility.

In a recent interview, she talked about how this mindset might result in more reliance on virtual teams. Klein, who has been an MIT Sloan faculty member since 1991, is currently studying remote collaboration, including globally dispersed teams.

She has looked at the industry perspective of working on such teams and is now applying that to distance education in the Systems and Design Management Program at MIT Sloan.

Q: As more companies set up dispersed locations and expect people to work together in virtual teams, what are the challenges they need to overcome?

Klein: Virtual teams are very difficult to make work. We all know what we're supposed to do with teams working in the same location, even though we don't always do it. Everything we know about co-located teams also applies to globally dispersed teams, but with virtual teams, you can't afford to not do everything absolutely right. You can't let up on anything.

In developing virtual teams, most people focus on the collaborative technologies and on team building; both of those are essential, but they are not sufficient. With remote collaboration you need to truly align the local and global priorities because the “out of sight/out of mind” problem arises if priorities aren't aligned.

We're learning that if you don't have a high priority at the local level for what you're trying to do on a remote basis, it just isn't going to work.

Our research shows that this is even more critical than the technologies or the team building, but it's the part that most people don't even bother to worry about! They either take it for granted that the priorities will be the same or they say it's too hard to fix.

When people are physically located side by side, they can get over these kinds of barriers, but that doesn't happen when people are in remote locations from each other.

One of the chief things that we've learned is that it is necessary to look at virtual teams from a multidisciplinary perspective. You can't just optimize the technology or the team building within the organizational strategy and infrastructure. Since it's all tightly linked together, it really requires multiple perspectives.

That means that the research must cross boundaries, and in doing that we experience what it is like to be in a dispersed team.

Q: Do the challenges of virtual teams get bigger as the geographic distances get bigger?

Klein: Yes, they do, particularly if you are doing something on a truly global basis, that is, beyond country borders, where you have cultural and time zone differences.

Companies do cross-cultural training for people they are sending on international assignments, but don't stop to think they need to do the same thing for people who work on virtual global teams.

Q: Does the virtual team model have any impact on work/family balance issues?

Klein: If you're working on a team with team members in different time zones, especially half way around the globe, it actually makes balancing things harder.

Rather than 8- to 12-hour days, we're on call 24-hours a day. Somebody is always going to be at a disadvantage when you have a synchronous team meeting.

Furthermore, managers tend to assume that you have more time if you're holding virtual meetings instead of traveling for face-to-face meetings. So they end up putting people on more teams than in the past. That creates more multi-tasking, more juggling, and worse work/family balance.

Q: How can companies help address those issues so people don't get burned out?

Klein: Organizations need to be more flexible in their expectations and scheduling. If you expect people to take those calls and work in the middle of the night, then you don't also expect them to be in their office for the standard 9 to 5 day.

Furthermore, organizations need to be very clear about their expectations and talk about it with employees.

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At MIT Sloan, companies are launched in courtyards and corridors. Research shows that start-ups conceived in a technology environment are the most successful.