The mojo of virtual teams

Virtual teams are around for ~20 years now. Still, they are far from universally mastered. Here is a first clue about what it takes to make them work.

Central to any virtual team is the issue of communications. A lot has been written and thought about the topic. For our purposes it is most interesting to look at the relatively old idea of Paul Watzlawick’s five basic axioms of communications. Number two is not the only one that matters for our purpose, but it does cover the majority of what we have to care for:

Every communication has a content
and a relationship aspect

This is hands down the most obvious observation about virtual teams: the relationship between the people in the same office is different from the relationship to the people on the other side of the planet.

But… is it correct? Or is it a self-fulfilling prophecy? That relationships are different because we treat people differently? (Implicitly)? Can we somehow eliminate location from how we cooperate? What would we have to do to give everybody the same opportunity, independent of location?

Note that this is not a humanities topic about “equal opportunities”. We are looking at the very reall everyday question of how to make the organizations we built deliver.

An interesting study by Microsoft Research has found that in the context of the development for the Microsoft Vista operating system, there was indeed a step change in quality. Between people who went to the same canteen or not. A lot of other factors don’t matter: same city, same timezone, same floor – there is only one step change: same canteen or not.

This is important to our topic because software architecture is indicative of relationship between developers, and indeed there is the mirroring hypothesis, also known as Conway’s law that suggests that software architecture mirrors real team structures.

The authors of the Microsoft study speculate that this high degree of cohesiveness has to do with Microsoft’s corporate culture: it doesn’t matter whether you are in Redmond, Brussels, Bangalore or Shanghai – once you go enter a Microsoft campus, you are “at Microsoft”. Geography moves to the background.

It seems that “relationships are different for people who are geographically far away” is largely a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Let’s give up on this self-fulfilling prophecy and turn the question around:

What can you do to make the relationships between remote people as similar to local relationships as possible?

Which information do you have to give them? In which discussions can you include them? How can you share purpose, loyalty, autonomy?

We’ll look into aspects and tools for this in future articles.

What do you think?