Office Politics Without the Office
Just because the physical office is removed from a virtual team, that doesn't mean that the team or company politics disappearor even diminish. People are still people, even when we can't see each other. And the dynamics around people still shift as alliances form, strengthen, subside, and break. Relationships are complicated. How do we deal with office politics at a distance?
- Know the hierarchy. On a virtual team, just as on a team based in the same physical location, you need to know the hierarchy of the team. Who reports to whom? Who has deciding power? Who is an influencer? How do decisions get made? Where do the pivotal conversations take placein email, IM, conference calls? Is the organizational hierarchy important? Or, in the day-to-day flow of a project, is the unspoken alignment map the more telling indicator of how things get done?
- Draw a different map. In her book Territorial Games: Understanding and Ending Turf Wars at Work (American Management Association, 2006, ISBN 0814474101), Annette Simmons outlines an exercise of drawing an "unspoken alignment map." Organizational charts may be posted on the wall and distributed in email, but the more powerful map is the undefined, unspoken alignment that truly shapes who runs what and who influences whom. Part of differentiating between adversaries and alliances is being able to draw that mapat least mentallyto know where everyone stands, including you.
- Build connections. In a physical office, it can be easy to see people walk into each other's offices or go to lunch together, but on a virtual team it takes a bit of listening to tune into who gets along and where alliances are formed. In my article "Building Alliances Between Testing and Other Teams," I highlighted the valueand even necessityof building alliances. When working with a virtual team, it can be easy to think that alliances or work relationships don't matter (or matter as much), but they do matter. In fact, on a virtual team, it takes extra effort to reach out and connect with people. And the value of building a strong rapport with our teammates is the same as it is when we work in the same office. People who get along well work together better and are more inclined to help each other.
What I find powerful about drawing the alignment map is how the map differs from the organizational chart. The discrepancies we see, learn, and intuit speak to the politics of the group and the ever-present reality of how relationships align, which may have little or nothing to do with the old org chart.
Office politics and games take place on virtual projects just as they do on physical projects. There can be meetings you didn't know took place, IM sessions in which you weren't included, and then the email games of blind-copying certain people or sending messages based on a particular timeframe. I've even experienced someone who set auto-reply to "out of office" on email as a way of filtering messages, even though this person was very much in town and availableit was just a case of who the person wanted to be available for. With a virtual team, you can't see all the gamesbut that doesn't mean that no games are being played.