Interview with Pernilla Roesoe, Managing Director of Itim International’s Copenhagen office: The challenges of leading at a distance

September 18, 2011

Q: Why is distance leadership a crucial topic in the 21st Century?

Increasingly, leadership at distance is a reality for many organizations. It is by working virtually, that companies are then able to meet the ever-changing requirements in highly turbulent and dynamic global business environments.

Virtual global teams offer companies a number of advantages, including, but not limited to, the ability to quickly adapt to ever changing competitive landscapes and ever changing customer demands; independence from time and space constraints; access to heterogeneous networks of knowledge and resources; not to mention reduced travel costs and reduced CO2 emissions.

Q: What are some of the critical issues related to managing global virtual teams?

Highly heterogeneous global teams have been shown to outperform homogenous teams, but it is more difficult for global virtual teams to realize the potentials. Global virtual teams face the same challenges that any other teams face, but in addition, they are faced with a set of unique challenges, which makes managing global virtual teams significantly more complex than managing traditional, co-located teams.

For example, working in different time zones can cause problems; some people are working whiles others are sleeping. The windows for synchronous interactions are reduced to a minimum!

Technology causes problems. Synchronous vs. asynchronous and rich vs. poor communication technology all have their distinct benefits and drawbacks. Furthermore, communication technology is by its very nature more attuned to sharing explicit rather than tacit knowledge.

Distance creates problems. Trust is the glue that holds the virtual team together, but it is difficult to establish across time and space because people have difficulties trusting people they cannot see and with whom they cannot directly interact. In addition, virtual teamwork does not suit everyone. It implies uncertainty in addition to social isolation, an environment, which some people will neither be able to handle nor work productively in. In addition, members of virtual teams are more prone to experience role conflict, ambiguity and work overload than members of co-located teams.

Diversity creates problems: Different communication styles and approaches to doing things around the world significantly affect global virtual teams. For instance, some people will feel comfortable making decisions on their own, while others will prefer to refer decision-making to a higher level in the organization. Differences in communication styles have the potential to create significant conflicts on the virtual team.