Global work groups, or virtual teams, have come into their own as companies have reduced spend on executive travel and opted instead to work on projects and communicate across time zones via teleconferencing, webcasts, and instant messaging as the global economic crisis bites. This virtual work model has been common in the technology sector for some years as companies with customers spread worldwide have had to find ways of linking up their research and development centres (R&D) to service customers 24 hours, seven days a week. Microsoft is a master at global work groups, with its R&D centres worldwide that were set up specifically to enable work to proceed on multiple projects continuously. According to Pattrahaj Hemakul, director of human resources Asia-Pacific at Siemens PLM Software, working in virtual teams has been driven by customer needs as business has become global. 'People in the company are working on projects that originate in different places, and they need to be able to talk to each other to solve problems for our customers,' she said. At Siemens PLM, this virtual teamwork has become what Ms Hemakul termed 'normal' with discussions about projects via conference calls, and programmes and training taking place via webcasts and videoconferencing. 'We have the technology to support this and the tools that allow us to do it,' she said. 'We have applications that allow us to view each other's computer screens from our desks. But our organisation is technology oriented and this method of working is probably now embedded within our culture,' Ms Hemakul said. Other organisations such as Hutchison Port Holdings (HPH) are beginning to familiarise themselves with the virtual, cross-country, cross-regional and cross-disciplined world that can be accessed through global work groups. The initiative at HPH stemmed from a management course that had as part of its work an action learning project that required the company's managers to form virtual teams because they were based in different locations. Francis Tong, the HR director for HPH, said the company thought it was a good way to start. 'It taught those on the course how to operate as a virtual team, and those are benefits that we're seeing now.' According to Mr Tong, using global work groups gives an organisation more choice in how it does business. It also offers flexibility and can provide a valuable staging post in grooming managers who are expatriates. 'When you work with people from different countries you have to be sensitive. Everyone has their own standards and you learn to manage the differences. These are the minor but important qualities that expatriates need to learn,' he said. Companies implement global work groups for many other reasons. According to Charles Caldwell, HR director Asia-Pacific for Juniper Networks, a provider of network infrastructure, one of the things the company learned from setting up operations in India and China was to make sure it had a compelling story about why it was setting up overseas. Just as Microsoft had done before it, Juniper wanted to be able to hand off projects round the clock, with people working on them in one part of the world before handing them on to a work group in another part of the world. 'We're always working on global projects because we have different levels of talent within the HR teams and specialists in each region in, for example, learning and development or compensation,' Mr Caldwell said. 'These people are involved in global projects for their own development and also because they have a lot to contribute to make sure that we take into consideration what's happening globally.' Typically, a global project within Juniper's HR function will pull people in from each region. This allows the company to take advantage of the strength it has in people in the regions but also ensures that when the final project is complete it takes into account the sensitivities of the different cultures, practices and legal environments around the world. For a company with customers from all over the world and more than half its employees based outside the United States, this cultural know-how is important to successful business. From the corporate point of view, there are two key benefits to using global work groups. First, there are cost and time savings: business can be managed effectively without having to fly executives around the world. Second, opening up a regional or global work group to people from different locations gives them the feeling that they are being given opportunities. It is a career development tool and promotes loyalty, skills and a good network within the company, all of which help when a company is trying to drive teamwork because people are already connected and talking to each other. There are, however, challenges. Those nominated to participate in a global work group may discuss, talk and communicate on a weekly or more frequent basis. But when they're not sitting in the same office and discussing the issues face-to-face, being effective can be difficult. 'You get distracted and each person in the project has their own country or regional interests while we're trying to work together on a project with a global structure. It can take longer to reach a solution,' Ms Hemakul said. One way of ensuring that the project moves along is to put in place a facilitator who can conclude the project in good time. In fact, a good facilitator will demonstrate patience and communication skills, an appreciation of differences, and ensure team members' commitment until the project is finished. 'One of the things we do in our R&D centres is dedicate a lot of time to training our engineers, including managers, on how to work effectively across cultures,' Mr Caldwell said. 'We have programmes that run in parallel, so the engineers in India and the US go through the same programme and the consultants or facilitators who run those programmes share the accumulated knowledge across the programmes. 'We've been doing that for over four years and the facilitators have become very good at figuring out what Juniper needs to be really effective in working across cultures and across borders. That information all gets translated into the programmes. It's a pretty enlightening experience for people coming into the company and getting exposed to global work groups for the first time,' he said.