In 1999 Cross, RL, Yan, A, & Louis, MR wrote about the move to virtual teams – and the need for what they called boundary management. Until then, nearly all teams were co-located. Even global teams were co-located in nodes.
What was clearly on the horizon was the disappearance of the co-located team – no more need to be connected physically with buildings, offices, meetings spaces – and the concept of physical boundaries posed by doors and walls.
The virtual equivalent of that work is still required – but as we stand at the dawn of the completely virtual zoom-for-everything era, many people have realized that they are now no longer able to close the virtual door.
So how to set those boundaries so that you can get your Life back?
(see the article “Boundary activities in ‘boundary-less’ organizations: A case study of a transformation to a team-based structure”)
1. Bringing Up boundaries - contrary to Spanning below, this is an internally focused exercise designed to attract and retain the required resources to deliver the team’s tasks in the virtual world – time boundaries, space boundaries, availability boundaries. Organizational members will belong to several teams, so this is critical to establish and maintain.
2. Boundary Buffering - internal management activities designed to protect team boundaries in terms of time and resource availability for the team and addressing constraints that need to be put in place so that team roles have their required allocations – and work with each other.
3. Spanning Boundaries - outward-oriented activities designed to communicate with and secure stakeholder relationships critical to outputs delivered or inputs the team needs.
Outcomes? In the article, it’s clear that benefits were realized – and they were also hard fought. So go in eyes open – working in this way involves also that the environment buys into the shift. One team working in this fashion alone will face significant challenges.
Sponsorship for a shift in the wider organization is much more conducive to successful implementations of the model. Be sure to think in terms of the teams you work on and with – some may be more appropriate than others. But very often teams themselves are victims of their own inability to have these types of discussions.
But avoiding a conversation that can greatly improve functioning is the benefit to draw attention to. The downside – the risk – is that team members working virtually without addressing these issues tend not to last in the longer run!
ARTICLE: “Boundary activities in ‘boundary-less’ organizations: A case study of a transformation to a team-based structure” . Human Relations, copyright 1999 Sage Publications. Authors: Cross, RL, Yan, A, & Louis, MR.
Bio on the author: Robert L. Cross is a doctoral candidate in the Organizational Behavior Department at Boston University’s School of Management. He is interested in organizational structure and emerging practices in team-based designs. In addition, he has actively researched aspects of organizational change and learning over the past several years. He has published in both academic and practitioner outlets and is editor of a forthcoming volume on organizational learning.
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