I was reading a paper [pdf] by Valentine Casey and Ita Richardson in which they list some of the lessons they learned from observing two virtual teams. One of the things they noticed was that the team members used email to publicly attack their colleagues. When I first read this I thought of all the problems you get on mailing lists when team members say negative or nasty things about each other. But they were actually talking about the problem of cc’ing. They observed that team members would copy in management on trivial matters when they wanted to put blame on someone who was in another geographic location. This practice not only alienated the person who got sent the message but also annoyed all the other team members in the same geographical location as the recipient. To make things worse the managers then got involved in things that really didn’t require management input and they also tended to take sides with the people who were in the same location as them.
I have come across this problem before but it was in the context of teams with competing priorities. For example the marketing team have a new campaign that they want to get out by a certain date but the programmers don’t have the time to code it. So, the marketing team start to cc their manager when writing to the developers in the hope that this will somehow help to make the developers find the time to do it or at least provide a good excuse for the missed deadline. And then the developers cc in their managers and before you know it the whole company is involved.
But I hadn’t thought about it in the context of virtual teams. I suppose I was thinking that virtual teams would have one manager. However, after thinking about this a bit more, I realise that the team may have one project manager but each team member may have to report to a manager in their own location. The paper suggests using a documented email policy to get round these problems but I suppose I don’t really like the thought of this. This is probably because I usually work with pedantic programmers who enjoy finding unexpected ways to manipulate a policy.