Five Ways to Create Successful Virtual Teams
Today, many companies have nearly half of their employees working on virtual teams. Unfortunately, our research finds that many enterprises recycle the same guidelines they use for their co-located teams and hope for the best. Frankly, that doesn’t work.
To help organizations maximize their investment in virtual collaboration, OnPoint Consulting conducted a study of 48 virtual teams to understand the success factors of top-performing virtual teams. Below are five lessons—excerpted from our book, Virtual Team Success: A Practical Guide for Working and Leading from a Distance (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley, 2010)—for creating successful virtual teams.
Lesson No. 1: Focus on people issues. Virtual teams need to compensate for the lack of human contact. Look for warning signs that a team’s people issues need more attention: team members working independently or teams with an “us versus them” mentality between locations or subgroups, for example.
Lesson No. 1 in action:
• Develop a team Web page to share information and build relationships.
• Use real-time communication tools such as instant messaging or social media sites to create a virtual water cooler of sorts that enables spontaneous communication.
• Send electronic newsletters or updates to the team.
• Periodically collect feedback from various stakeholders to assess the team’s performance.
Lesson No. 2: No trust, no team. In virtual teams, trust develops more readily at the task level than at the interpersonal level. There are three warning signs that trust is in low supply in virtual teams: team members do not refer to themselves as “we”; they do not appear to know one another well; and they do not regard other team members as credible.
Lesson No. 2 in action:
• Make sure teams meet face to face at least once.
• Avoid micromanaging and empower team members to make—and act on—decisions.
• Help people manage conflicts rather than avoiding them.
• Clearly define team roles and accountabilities to minimize frustration and misunderstandings that can damage morale.
Lesson No. 3: “Soft” skills are essential. Soft skills make a difference in virtual team performance. We found that virtual teams that have skill development activities perform better than those that don’t.
Lesson No. 3 in action:
• Use criteria and/or assessments when selecting individuals for virtual teams.
• Use team-building sessions to help team members strengthen relationships and team effectiveness.
• Assess team development needs and conduct skill-building on these areas.
Lesson No. 4: Create a high-touch environment. Technology has made virtual teaming possible, but it is not a substitute for human interaction. In addition to making virtual interaction more “human,” it’s critical that virtual team members meet in person. Yes, that requires time and money, but virtual teams that invest in one or two such meetings per year perform better than those that don’t.
Lesson No. 4 in action:
• Leverage synchronous tools (e.g., IM) to increase spontan-eous communication.
• Use tools such as electronic bulletin boards to create a sense of shared space.
• Choose communication technologies that are most appropriate to the task.
• Make wider use of video conferencing. Our research suggests that teams that use video technology perform better than those that don’t.
Lesson No. 5: Virtual team leadership matters. Research shows that leadership does have a statistically significant correlation with higher virtual team performance. Virtual team leaders must be sensitive to interpersonal communication and cultural factors.
Lesson No. 5 in action:
• Set clear goals and direction and revisit these as priorities shift.
• Be responsive and accessible.
• Create a system to easily integrate new team members.
• Celebrate team achievements and successes.
Organizations set up virtual teams to address a particular business need, but many jump in without understanding what they are getting into. Better planning could dramatically improve their odds for success. There is a formula for success, and all today’s virtual teams need to do is put it to work.
Richard Lepsinger is president of OnPoint Consulting and has a 25-year track record of success as an organizational consultant and executive. In addition to writing Closing the Execution Gap, he has coauthored four books on leadership.
Darleen DeRosa, Ph.D., is a managing partner at OnPoint Consulting. In addition to Virtual Team Success, she has published book chapters and articles.