Survive the Global Seismic Shift: The Five Ways to Succeed on Virtual Operating Teams

Lee Ann Moore, Chief Marketing Officer and
Joe Lancaster, Project Director

While not experiencing 7.34 on the Richter scale, many EquaTerra clients have felt their operating environment shift and their global footprint change as they migrate their businesses to geographic areas of greatest growth. Our client base includes a large number of the oldest U.S.-based companies which faced sluggish growth even before the recession hit. In their quest for growth beyond the U.S. borders, their employee base has shifted and global teams have emerged. These companies, many of them public, are working for their shareholders trying to maximize return in an environment that rewards growth.

For many companies, growth today means moving into markets where their brand is not understood, known or respected. For example, I recently spoke with one agriculture executive who commented his company’s brand is held in reverence in agricultural circles in the U.S., but in India its brand means nothing. This same company mentioned that for the first time in its 100+ year history it will soon have more employees abroad than in the United States.

This corporate demographic shift wreaks havoc on employees accustomed to living in the same town, working in the same office and sharing the same background and beliefs as their colleagues. For example, one premiere U.S.-based food manufacturing client of ours is establishing shared services centers around the world, and is struggling with the daily challenges of working virtually.

As EquaTerra has been a virtual company since its inception, we have well-learned what works and what doesn’t. Following are five key principles we have identified which will enable companies new to the model to succeed with virtual teams:

  1. Trust (and other operating values) – Sounds simple, but if a team is not operating based on a platform of trust that each member is working toward a common goal, is using his or her talents to deliver value to the organization and contributing to the project, a virtual operating model will fail. In an environment lacking trust, relationships break down and productivity stops because of the time needed to mend the situation, if it in fact can be mended. Trust is the foundation of any successful virtual operating team.
  2. Tools – Operating on a virtual team was not practical 15 years ago, and it was a challenge (and expensive) 10 years ago. But now, with tools like WebEx, Skype, Groove, SharePoint and other communications and collaboration tools, virtual teams can become productive in a relatively short time period and often for a nominal fee. For example, Skype’s video feature creates an effective conference room for global team meetings.
  3. Measure, not Manage – The 9 am-5 pm work shift may exist somewhere, but not on global operating teams. It is expected and accepted that calls and meetings will take place after local business hours to accommodate team members around the globe (yes, 4:00 am conference calls are within reason). While it’s impossible to manage the presence of employees in a virtual environment, companies can measure their performance. Set clear MBO’s based on broad organizational goals or outcomes not day-to-day responsibility. A requisite shift in corporate mindset from performance management to performance measurement – or outcome-based productivity – gives employees the flexibility to accomplish their jobs to the best of their ability, provides room for them to grow and enables them to deliver concrete results to their organization.
  4. Who Decides? Clear Decision-rights, Governance – Outlining the decision rights for certain tasks is one of the critical first steps in establishing a virtual team. Whether you use a RACI chart or equivalent tool to define the roles for your organization, doing so will eliminate the lack of clarity which otherwise will mire a team in confusion and inefficiency. Note that when broken down by project, the nuances between being a contributor and being informed often require an initial face-to-face session to work toward a place of common understanding (see below).
  5. Face Time is a Must, Just not all the Time – While nothing replaces the experience of an actual meeting, tools like the video cameras on most of today’s laptops, interactive WebEx sessions and the free conference services still offered by Skype come very close. And using them eliminates the massive expenses associated with frequent in-person team face time. As an active user of these tools, we still find that our team needs to meet at critical inflection points during the year – budgeting/planning, kick-off and critical check points of a global project and other sessions when the details are potentially lost when not sharing the same room. But with the technology available today, we are able to work through many complex situations, dependencies and check points in a virtual environment.


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