New Way of Working

Three myths of virtual collaboration - and our experiences in practice

The project teams of "ERGO Technology & Services Management AG" (ET&SM) work from Germany, Poland and India, and its developers are based in a wide variety of locations. Virtual collaboration was a basic requirement for ERGO's global tech hub from the very beginning. Jan Huntgeburth, Vice President Strategy & Delivery at ET&S, writes about his experiences over the past few years. In the process, he has identified three myths.

Three years ago, in 2017, we started building a global Tech Hub for digital services in Warsaw for ERGO. Back then, we were often challenged by our stakeholders questioning if project teams operating with software development units based in multiple locations can successfully deliver. Nowadays, when finding digital talent on the job market is challenging, cross-site companies have a competitive edge in finding the required skills all over the globe. The technology arm of ERGO Group, enabling virtual work for our projects teams, is an important asset for acquiring the best talent. 

In the past three years, we have had many stakeholders who are evangelists for the need for co-location in IT projects. This initially made it difficult for us to be part of the project team out of Warsaw and Berlin, as many stakeholders and project members were working in different locations. This concern was to a large extent connected to some prejudices about virtual collaboration, which I would like to share with you along with our real experience.

 

Myth #1: Productivity

"Co-located teams are more productive than virtual development teams"

One major shift from co-located to virtual teams highlights that the value or performance of the team is solely measured by its output. In our tech-hub, development teams work in Scrum and show bi-weekly development progress in a product demo. Activities within the Sprint are arranged in a self-organized way. A Scrum Master facilitates the team to remove impediments and increase sprint velocity. Virtual teams are much less burdened by unnecessary and ad hoc meetings with stakeholders. Meetings are ceremonies, well prepared and following a systematic structure. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced most of our teams on all sites to work remotely, productivity measurably increased since developers were able to spend even more time on the output rather than attending unnecessary meetings. That co-located teams are more productive than virtual development teams is not only a prejudice, the opposite is true.

Myth #2: Communications

"Virtual teams have lower quality team communication"

Empathy and details can get lost in a virtual environment. However, I experienced that virtual teams can have more effective communication, if you set them up right. Our tech-hub established agile practices for virtual meetings. We use video conferencing for formerly face-to-face meetings such as demos, planning and retrospectives. We also emphasize meeting physically at least once a quarter, in order to synchronize with partners on plans and to run retrospectives on how to improve collaboration and celebrate success. Since these meetings are typically held with all project participants (i.e., more than 30 participants), available virtual collaboration technologies reach their limitations when discussions need to more dynamic in terms of who exchanged views with whom. 

We also encourage teams to use asynchronous forms of communication (email, chat tool, collaboration space, backlog) for non-urgent tasks to avoid distraction of team members. On the company level, we have also established ceremonies such as town halls, roadshows and community practice that meet virtually and physically from time to time. They enable us to stay in touch beyond the topics of the Scrum team.

Myth #3: Team spirit

"Virtual teams have lower team spirit and identity"

Members of the development team can easily feel isolated from the virtual team. In order to develop a great team spirit and identity, this topic needs to be actively managed. Delivery models need to build in opportunities to socialize in every interaction. E.g., we start project kick-off or retrospective meetings with icebreaker questions so people get to know each other better.

I experienced that meeting in-person intensively at the beginning of the collaboration and developing a common goal are critical for effective virtual cooperation. All project participants need to buy into the virtual form of collaboration. Feasible tools need to be available to facilitate the teamwork and a trusting relationship has to be established. I specifically made the observation that delivering an MVP in a preferably short time frame signals to everyone that we can be successful, and we have a common goal. Virtual teams start being most effective once the first release has been made. 

My learnings

I learned a lot over the last four years about virtual collaboration. Prejudices  about virutal coolaboration need to be actively managed. It does not help if you have the best skilled people for the job together, if they are not able to communicate and collaborate together. At ERGO, we are now at the stage where the question if virtual development teams can be effective, is no longer important to the discussion. We have successfully delivered many projects with team members located in Germany, Poland and India. 

These days, COVID-19 is forcing many colleagues to join the virtual team set-up. In my next article I will share some use cases of successful virtual teams at ERGO Technology & Services Management and why I believe they have become effective.

Text: Jan Huntgeburth