Although many companies have made significant investments in virtual teams and the technology to support them, a surprising number of these teams do not reach their full potential. In an effort to understand what sets successful teams apart from those that fail to deliver, OnPoint Consulting conducted a survey of 48 virtual teams and over 300 virtual team members across a variety of industries. This research identified a number of specific practices associated with the most successful teams and provides organizations with a number of specific recommendations to enhance the performance of their virtual teams.
While the full results of OnPoint’s research are detailed in Virtual Team Success: A Practical Guide to Working and Leading From a Distance, here are some key insights into high-performing virtual teams.
Eleven Virtual Team Success Factors
Stable and Consistent Team Membership
When changes in team membership are less frequent, there is greater stability and more time for team members to build lasting relationships that facilitate trust and collaboration.
Fewer Team Members
The most effective virtual teams consisted of fewer than ten people, while the least effective teams had 13 members or more.
Members From the Same Function
Cross-functional teams face unique challenges and greater levels of complexity that inhibit performance in a virtual environment.
Members on Fewer Teams
Many team members from low-performing teams reported participating in multiple virtual teams, which hindered their overall effectiveness.
Members with Longer Tenure
The top-performing teams had been together for more than three years, suggesting that vital communication and execution practices improved significantly over time.
Face-to-Face Kick-off Meetings
Teams that conducted an initial face-to-face meeting within the first 90 days achieved better performance than teams that never met face-to-face.
More Frequent Meetings
63 percent of high-performing teams “met” at least once a week, compared to 29 percent of the less-effective teams.
Providing Skill Training
Teams that participated in more than four development sessions performed significantly better than teams with one or zero sessions.
Team Leaders Who Are Better at Leading From a Distance
Leaders of high-performing teams are better able to promote virtual collaboration, which was a key challenge reported by their lower-performing counterparts.
Have More Members Reporting Directly to the Team Leader
When team leaders have direct reporting relationships with team members, they’re better able to keep the team focused on shared goals, follow through on obligations, and hold team members accountable.
Tips for Building High Performing Virtual Teams
In light of these success factors, there are five key actions organizations can take to enhance the performance of their virtual teams.
Ensure the Right Fit of Skill-to-Task When Selecting Virtual Team Leaders
The most effective virtual team leaders are able to balance the execution-oriented, interpersonal practices, and the cultural factors that are prevalent in virtual teaming. Organizations should select team leaders based on the characteristics required for leading from a distance and periodically assess their effectiveness.
Set Teams Up for Success (And Don’t Take the Team Launch For Granted!)
Organizations need to be thoughtful about team membership and team size while also ensuring that they have the appropriate resources to work together virtually. For example, use criteria for virtual team member selection and consider who needs to be on the team to make high-quality decisions and ensure buy-in. If the team size becomes too large, have sub-teams work on specific issues and report back to the larger team. When possible, conduct a face-to-face start-up meeting to discuss team purpose and goals, individual roles, learn more about each other, develop team norms, plan an effective communication strategy, and conduct team development activities.
Develop Reward Strategies
Organizations should implement programs that reward and recognize virtual teams for their collective performance. Group successes should be celebrated virtually so that everyone knows what the team has accomplished. At the same time, individual achievements shouldn’t go unnoticed. Virtual leaders can “spotlight” team members to reward good performance and make sure they know their contributions are valued.
Teams can reinforce accountability by developing action plans that document who is responsible for what and when. These action plans should be posted publicly to increase awareness and help avoid social loafing. Team leaders and members can also incorporate one or more virtual team responsibilities into their goals or personal development plan to ensure they will keep focused on efforts that drive overall team success as part of their personal goals.
Assess Team Progress
Regularly review virtual team communication and work processes to assess which aspects are effective and where improvements might be made. Periodically collect feedback from stakeholders to assess the team’s performance, identify barriers to high performance, and steps to overcome these barriers.
It’s important to remember that the factors that contribute to the success of a virtual team are not the same as those for a co-located team. Organizations that incorporate the eleven success factors when forming virtual teams and follow the five recommendations for their ongoing development will find that their investment will pay off handsomely.