We will be working virtually more frequently in the future

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  • May 28, 2014

Peter Ivanov, author of the “Virtual Power Teams” management system reports to Economy.bg on the advantages and disadvantages of virtual teams and how they can be managed more successfully

Working on several continents is today a common process for many of the large organisations. Virtual teams in which people do not work side by side are of fundamental importance to large corporations. According to many experts, this is the future of work organization.

How can the disadvantage of geographical distance be turned to advantage? We have discussed this subject with Peter Ivanov, a manager with over 20 years international business experience who has lead many virtual teams in Eastern and Western Europe, Asia and Africa. He implemented the Virtual Power Team management method with teams that were stationed in different continents. His concept, which consists of 10 elementary pillars, the “10 Big Rocks”, has been successfully applied in a number of internationally active organisations as well as in both academic and NGO sectors.

Peter Ivanov is an Executive Coach and Keynote Speaker with many years of international experience
Since 1998, he has been living in Hungary and Germany and is winner of two renowned company awards from British American Tobacco, namely “The Best Of The Best” from the Global IT Services in 2007 and the Innovations prize Global IT Connect Award in 2012. Peter Ivanov recently presented his system to the Bulgarian public in Sofia and will be Keynote Speaker at the 15th International HR Summit in the “Golden Sands”, Bulgaria.

Mr. Ivanov, what are the pro’s and con’s of working in virtual teams?

Three groups feel the advantages: the team leaders, the team members and the organization to which the team belongs. The disadvantages refer mostly to the fact that the team members rarely see each other.

The advantage for the organization is that they have the opportunity to engage the best experts independent of where they have their desks.

However, in order to achieve maximum effect, the team must be well organized. For the experts themselves, the virtual work allows them to participate in the most exciting projects. If an expert wishes to remain in Australia and the project is being completed in the USA, he does not need to transfer. If the team leader is skilled, full participation is possible in spite of geographical distances. The disadvantages are mostly due to the fact that the team members have less opportunity to talk to each other informally. This is precisely the focus of my method; to minimize these disadvantages and turn them into advantages. This is simply one of my large pillar theories or “Big Rocks”. With this method, focus is on the individual personality, which is crucial and needs room to develop. If the manager supports individual team members’ personalities, they will be given, in a manner of speech, wings to fly.

To what extent is the situation in which people seldom see each other disadvantageous?

In any team, virtual or not, trust plays a major role. Trust requires two aspects– Knowing the personalities and potential of your team members’ and being truthfully informed of their capacity and qualifications. If the team members communicate with each other often enough, there need be no difference and team relationships will prosper.
This is made possible with the help of modern technology such as e.g. videoconferences, chats, etc…

How can physical distance be seen as being an advantage?

Firstly, it is team unity that overcomes physical distance: by respecting and responding to individual personalities, promoting their strengths, additional role allocation, careful structured communication from the first meeting onwards; these are the methods for Creating a “winning spirit” and a virtual culture. The virtual team can be seen as an atom that has a nucleus and many particles. As with the atom, the target of the team is to retain the gravity “between the particles”.

A year ago, the Harvard Business Review presented a research project asserting that virtual teams could be more successful than presence teams, How does this come about?

One factor will be that you have the best experts in their field working on a project who are valued both for their expertise but also the personal attributes they bring to the team. The other factor is the creation of a “winning spirit“. It is very important to clarify the collective objective as well as identify creative and attractive personal rewards to motivate the team members.

For example, we had a project that lasted 27 months. Our goal was to transfer the IT Services management of 20 subsidiaries in 20 countries in Europe to the Global Shared services unit. Although the project was very complex, we managed to complete it 3 months in advance and so saved 250,000 Euros. With a total of 50,000 Euros we organized a great party on the Canary Islands. I had set this objective 8 months earlier. It is very important that attractive rewards are clearly presented from the very start. The process must also be checked regularly to establish that objectives are being reached. “Winning Spirit” is achieved in a similar way. Both formal and informal communications are also very important. Formal communication often seems easier for most people than informal, and often for this reason informal communication can be neglected. That is why I put great value on our weekly videoconferences. During these conferences, team members have the opportunity to share events from both their private and working lives. This is the so-called personal update process, which is necessary because the team members meet each other in person normally only once a year. Each one is “invited” to share his or her weekly highlights. In this manner, a virtual team can function just like a local presence team.

According to the Harvard Business Review, many managers think wrongly, that frequent communication is a guarantee of success for a project. According to the magazine however there is a risk that the team members will become overburdened with information, which could lead to a pointless waste of time. What is your opinion about this?

My truthful opinion is that success is to be found in a happy and well-balanced middle ground. However, if problems arise in virtual teams it is mostly due to a lack of successful informal communication.

Do you believe that your method can be applied in Bulgaria?

Definitely yes. The concept “10 Big Rocks” I have developed can be implemented both in economic, scientific and non-governmental organizations, but most importantly and above all, it is based on human values. This is why I am convinced of its universality – and accessibility for each organization in every country. This method appears to be naturally attractive for intercultural teams that are distributed across different continents. In Bulgaria it could function within the framework of an organization that is spread out amongst various locations of the country. And in this case, the process would be somewhat easier as there would be fewer cultural or language barriers to be overcome.

Has this concept been tried in Bulgaria?

Not yet. I am glad to be here now. This method has only been tried in the organization where I was manager. It originated during the course of my work. I have tested and developed the concept with the teams I lead.

Do you have information to which extent virtual teams are being used compared to presence teams?

I would say, as the world and organizations are becoming more and more globally active, the number of local companies that operate in only one city amounts to about 10-20%.

Will we work in virtual teams in the future?

Yes, I think so. Technology guarantees that contact will become closer and more intensive. The generation “Y”, that according to statistics will change their jobs every 2-3 years or respectively are also looking for new dynamics. Virtual teams comply with the demands of this generation who now represent the largest workforce and will continue to do so in the future. There is certain to be an ever-increasing rise of virtual work over the next 15 years.

What was your personal motivation in developing this method?

On the one hand – Necessity. I was a member on a virtual team that was not being managed very well. I was especially frustrated and dissatisfied because employees who were personally motivated and able to achieve every objective were not given the chance to do so.
There must be a clear definition of target and the freedom to achieve it. I was given the opportunity to lead this same team and was able to test the concept. And – In the following 7 years this concept developed into its present form, which encompasses the 10 Big Rocks.

The original text in Bulgarian: