Virtual Manager: Mastering Business in a Networked World

Virtual teams can quickly gather the knowledge of even far-flung staff

The Verifone sales rep knew his big sale of the quarter was unraveling when he left the offices of an Athens bank at 4:30 p.m. A competitor had raised doubts about whether VeriFone could deliver a new payment-service technology, one that had not been used extensively in Greece. In fact, VeriFone was the main supplier of that technology in the United States and many other countries, with more than half a million installations and many satisfied customers. But the rep didn't have any particulars about those users to be able to make a rebuttal.

He scouted out the nearest phone and hooked up his laptop to it. Then he sent an SOS E-mail to all VeriFone sales, marketing, and technical-support staff worldwide. That E-mail launched a process that would create a virtual team to gather customers' testimonials and other data to make his case while he slept.

In San Francisco an international marketing staffer who was on duty to monitor such SOS calls got the message at home when he checked his E-mail at 6:30 a.m. He organized a conference call with two other marketing staffers, one in Atlanta and one in Hong Kong, where it was 9:30 a.m. and 10:30 p.m., respectively. Together, they decided how to handle the data coming in from everyone who'd received the post. A few hours later the two U.S. team members spoke on the phone again while they used the company's wide area network to fine-tune a sales presentation that the San Francisco team leader had drafted. Before leaving for the day, the leader passed the presentation on to the Hong Kong team member so he could add Asian information to the detailed account of experiences and references when he arrived at work.

The Greek sales rep awakened a few hours later. He retrieved the presentation from the network, got to the bank by 8 a.m., and showed the customer the data on his laptop. Impressed by the speedy response to get business, the customer reasoned that VeriFone would also respond as fast to keep business. He placed the order.

Virtual teams can quickly harness the knowledge of your staff members, regardless of their location, and enable your company to respond faster to increased competition. VeriFone uses virtual teams in every aspect of its operation, from groups of facility managers who determine how to reduce toxins in their offices, to manufacturing purchasing groups that seek hard-to-find semiconductors, to marketing and development groups that brainstorm new products.

Simply put, a virtual team is any task-focused group that meets without all members necessarily being in the same room or even working at the same time. Virtual teams may meet through conference calls, videoconferences, E-mail, or other communications tools, such as application sharing. Teams may include employees only, or they may include outsiders, such as a customer's employees. Virtual teams work well for global companies, but they can also benefit small companies operating from a single location, especially if decision makers are often at job sites or on the road. They can be short-lived, like the one that helped the Greek sales rep, or permanent, such as operational teams that run their companies virtually. Any employee may organize a team, but it's important that teams not be formed haphazardly.

What's not negotiable about virtual teams is the necessity of training. At VeriFone, leaders of every virtual team must know and follow written procedures put together by VeriFone's senior managers, whether the team is appointed, as in the case of the San Francisco staffer heading the team aiding the Greek rep, or self-selected, as in the case of a director of a long-term team monitoring day-to-day operations. Before an employee is permitted to form one of VeriFone's process-improvement teams, for example, he or she must complete a 40-hour training program.

There are four crucial steps to creating a successful virtual team. To make sure that you end up with a smooth-functioning group rather than a loose conglomeration of individuals, follow these guidelines:

1. Define a purpose. A team must always start by putting its purpose in writing. The purpose will largely determine who should be on the team, what information needs to be collected, how quickly a conclusion must be reached, what the team will and won't try to accomplish, what technologies will be used, and what defines success. VeriFone has a Team Start-up Checklist covering all these issues, but defining the purpose always comes first. It's a good idea to start each team meeting by rereading the purpose to keep everyone on track and to avoid misunderstandings.

2. Recruit members. More is not better. Most virtual teams should have between three and seven members. Any more people make it difficult for each individual to contribute meaningfully. Choose members who represent a range of views and experiences. Also, by selecting people from different time zones or shifts, like the U.S. and Hong Kong team members, the team can be productive over more than one work period.

3. Determine duration. Again, purpose will largely determine how long a team will exist. At VeriFone, teams usually fall into one of four categories, and each has its own rhythm and requirements:

  • A short-term task team, like the one that helped the Greek sales rep, must be formed and start producing in minutes or hours. Usually the team has a single leader who collects information and assigns work, and each team member contributes only a small amount of time to the task.
  • A problem-solving task team is usually quite diverse, perhaps made up of engineers from different parts of the world to solve a technical problem or employees from different levels gathered to recruit new hires. Team members must be aware that diversity often means that defining the problem or purpose will take longer, and they have to adjust their expectations accordingly.
  • A process-improvement team is used to address a systems problem. VeriFone currently has more than 60 such teams, each of them formed by a trained leader who saw a problem he or she wanted corrected. One recent team streamlined the sales-order process, reducing order turnaround time by more than half. The work of these teams is considered so important that process-improvement teams are selected at random to make presentations to the CEO and his staff at all their meetings.
  • Long-term operational teams are responsible for some aspect of day-to-day operations. At VeriFone, the profit-before-tax projection team, for example, comprises the company's business-unit controllers from around the world. The group meets for a few minutes every week via conference call to review current financial forecasts. The leader compiles a companywide forecast using data from each unit and distributes it by E-mail. The forecast provides an early warning about changing business conditions and alerts other units when they may have to compensate for shortfalls.

4. Select technology tools. Being trained in how to use communications tools is essential for the virtual team, but even more critical is knowing when to use them. For keeping in contact remotely, VeriFone teams use beepers, cellular phones, and voice mail; for disseminating information, fax, E-mail, and application sharing over the network; and for decision making, E-mail, conference calls, and videoconferencing. Technology problem-solving teams, for example, often use videoconferencing so all members can see the equipment being discussed. Marketing teams often use remote application-sharing tools so everyone can see presentation slides and make suggestions. And problem-solving task teams share results by E-mail, with follow-up conference calls at least daily--not to share information but to challenge it, suggest new courses of action, and determine next steps.

Team members, and especially the leader, also need to understand the psychological pitfalls of communicating remotely and that some subtleties of meaning are always lost. E-mail, for instance, is great for sharing information, but it's a terrible tool for arguing. When misunderstandings arise or issues need to be discussed, the team should get back on the phone and away from E-mail.

A full understanding of all these areas is crucial for successful virtual teams. It takes time, but the payback in increased competitiveness will far exceed your investment.

William R. Pape (will_p@verifone.com) is cofounder of VeriFone Inc., headquartered in Redwood City, Calif. He was VeriFone's first chief information officer and has been operating virtually since 1978.