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How teams work
How teams work

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6 Team rules

Choosing the communication technologies that you are going to use is important to the effective progress towards team goals, but so is deciding upon how you are going to use them, so that you can communicate and collaborate effectively with other team members. Some of the issues that can arise include the following.

  1. The difficulty of scheduling synchronous meetings. Given the complexity of working with people who may be in different time zones, or working for several teams, it is likely that team members may have such different and busy schedules that it may be difficult to schedule a time when the whole team may be available for a synchronous meeting. Consequently, it may be easier to collaborate using asynchronous communication media such as email, wikis and forums, where team members can contribute at a time which suits their own schedules. If the team does arrange synchronous electronic meetings, then good minutes (or notes) of the meeting should be taken so that those people who were not able to participate in the meeting know what was discussed, and the decisions that were taken (just as you would at a face-to-face meeting in the workplace).
  2. Recognising that progress may be slow for a variety of reasons. You may find yourself waiting for someone else to complete their part of the project before you can move forward to the next stage. If so, please be patient. Alternatively, if other members of the team are waiting for you, please keep them informed of your progress. It can be extremely frustrating not knowing what progress is being made elsewhere, especially when deadlines are looming.
  3. Allowing extra time for decision making. In full-time work, meetings can be a significant decision-making tool. Given the difficulty of organising meetings (see the first point above), decisions will probably be taken by more protracted asynchronous discussions. This will tend to slow down the decision-making process because you will have to wait for members of the team to read, and respond to, messages posted to asynchronous forums. One way in which you can help to keep the decision-making process moving forward is to set (sensible) time limits by which every team member should have read, and responded to, issues posted for discussion so that decisions can be taken. The paper by Coar (2003) has a very helpful discussion on the difficulties of reaching a consensus via asynchronous communication methods such as email.
  4. Partitioning the work, so that you are not dependent on working very closely with remote team members on a difficult problem. In the context of software engineering, the design of the software could be partitioned into loosely coupled modules, each module being assigned to one team member or to one location if some team members are collocated. This method of working requires a subsequent integration phase, which can take a substantial amount of time and must be scheduled for. This issue is discussed in more detail in Turnlund (2003) and Hohmann (1997).

Some virtual teams have found that it was beneficial to structure their work to fit the team members’ location and collaboration technologies that were available to them. However, virtual teams may find that the current generation of communication and collaboration technologies are neither sufficiently flexible nor of high enough quality to adapt to their requirements. Here, the team has to adapt its working practices to suit the working environment.

How are you going to adapt your own working practices? Or, more to the point, what working practices – team rules and norms – are you going to adopt in order to facilitate productive, collaborative working? Examples of rules that your team could consider are as follows.

  • How frequently are you going to ask that team members check their email and team forum? Once a week, twice a week, daily, or at the beginning and end of each working day?
  • What communication and collaboration media are the team going to use?
  • Should the team set guidelines on when team members might expect to have received a reply to messages posted to a forum or by email?