Assessing Risks Today

We are moving toward an untethered, distributed, and team-based, collaborative-work paradigm. A recent Gartner Group Inc. report estimates that by 2004, 60 percent of the professional and management tasks at Global 2000 companies will be done via virtual teams.

Equally interesting, though, is another estimate from Gartner: "By 2003, 50 percent of virtual teams will fail to meet either strategic or operational objectives due to the inability to manage distributed workforce implementation risks." If this figure is correct, a risk assessment is warranted now to ensure your success in leading virtual teams.

There are obvious benefits to adopting the new work paradigm. Chief among these are a reduction in operational costs, increases in productivity via instant communication, and the ability to hire the best people regardless of their location. But how can you identify the risks and what can you do about them now?

To begin, examine the risks that you and the other leaders at your company need to manage. Moving to the distributed work paradigm is a huge change and an alarming trend for many managers and employees.

As a leader, you need to be clear when communicating your vision of distributed teams and why they are vital to the company. Both managers and staffers need to hear that you and senior management are committed to distributed work arrangements. You need to share your insight into how virtual teams will positively impact company goals and how company culture will change for the better.

In addition to communicating your view of the new world of work, the most positive step you can take to assure success is to be a role model. Show your staff how comfortable you are with distributed work. Share the issues you come up against and explain to others what you did to resolve them.

You might also consider setting up rewards or recognition for departments or virtual teams that perform particularly well.

The next big risk area to examine is workflow. Your assessment must include how distributed teams will communicate. You will need to specify how virtual teams will interconnect and how everyone will stay in sync with the overall objectives of the company.

Individual virtual team members -- distributed workers -- need a sense of identity and community. This need can be met by weekly videoconferences, telephone calls, and periodic face-to-face meetings. In addition, community-based software solutions can help distributed workers connect and share.

There are other people-related risks that must be examined. For example, everyone at your company will want to know what effects the changes will have, what is acceptable, and what isn't. A policy can be put together after holding some sessions to gather input from groups or individuals who will move to distributed working arrangements.

While constructing your guidelines, identify those roles that will be distributed and those that will not. You'll also need to determine how you will educate your employees so they will feel comfortable and knowledgeable about virtual work.

The final risks to hold in mind are possible technology glitches. Consider whether you have invested in the right tools and to the extent needed to support distributed work. You'll certainly need bandwidth and remote access, along with the support personnel to address questions.

Budgets need to be adjusted to include collaborative software, teleconferencing, online meetings, and videoconferencing. A portion of the savings derived from the reduced operating expenses that come with distributed work can be applied to these expenses.

At the same time, identify those portions of your existing architecture that will no longer be needed once you complete the transition to distributed work. You may need to establish a schedule to phase out certain platforms, applications, connectivity, etc. It's also time to revisit your company's security policy.

With the move to distributed work, you can expect a certain amount of risk and plenty of challenges. But examining your leadership role, workflow issues, people's concerns, and technology requirements will leave you better prepared to manage the expected risks.

Are you moving to distributed work? Write to me at maggie_biggs@infoworld.com.

Maggie Biggs is director of the InfoWorld Test Center.

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