Many organizations have migrated toward telecommuting and virtual work due to rising travel costs, a global customer base, and the dispersion of talent. Despite the significant investments in virtual teams and the technology needed to support them, a surprising number of these teams are not successful.
To understand why so many virtual teams end up performing below expectations, OnPoint Consulting conducted a survey of 48 virtual teams across industries. The most revealing finding of this research is that people matter. A lot. In fact, selecting the right people for a virtual team might be the single most important decision an organization makes to determine the team’s ultimate success or failure.
OnPoint’s research found that specific characteristics are required to lead and work effectively in a virtual setting. Members of top performing teams shared a number of these traits while underperforming teams consistently do not. Here are five findings that stood out in the virtual team survey:
1: Virtual Leaders Are Different From Co-located Leaders
The most effective virtual team leaders are able to balance both the execution-oriented practices and the interpersonal, communication, and cultural factors that define virtual teams. Organizations should take time to select the individual with the appropriate skills rather than just going with the first person to volunteer or someone who already happens to lead a team. In addition, they should periodically assess their leaders’ effectiveness and provide them with targeted feedback about how they can enhance their performance. Great leaders will be eager to learn what they can do to keep improving.
Unfortunately, many organizations do not put as much thought as they should into their team leader decisions. In fact, it seems that many team leaders were selected based on availability or simply because they volunteered. Leading a virtual team is a challenging task and requires a different skill set than leading a traditional co-located team.
2: Remote Doesn’t Mean Introverted
Organizations should also ensure that their virtual team members have the skills necessary to effectively collaborate from a distance. Since virtual teams work remotely, it stands to reason that more introverted employees would be well-suited to the task. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. In general, extroverts tend to thrive more in virtual contexts than introverts. Extroverted employees are more adept at finding ways to stay connected to others, regardless of location.
Regular communication is a critical element of virtual team success. In a remote situation, it’s very easy for employees to become engrossed in their own tasks and neglect to communicate with the rest of the team or bother to establish relationships with others. Without those relationships, it’s difficult to build trust within the team, which is one of the most important aspects of any team, whether virtual or co-located.
3: Organization is Essential
The study also showed that being structured and organized is a major factor in success in a virtual team. Team members must be able to manage their responsibilities with little oversight and direction. Virtual teams may correspond and meet via video conferencing, but there’s usually very little in the way of direct supervision. If team members are not able to stay on task and keep on top of their obligations, a virtual team can find itself unravelling very quickly.
While project management software and other productivity tools help to keep virtual workers organized, time management is crucial. Since many virtual employees are often not bound by a set schedule, there’s always a risk that they many leave critical tasks unfinished until the last moment, creating problems for other team members.
4: Team Members Must Take Initiative
People who are motivated and are able to work in a self-directed manner tend to thrive in virtual teams. They must have a high tolerance for ambiguity and be able to identify tasks that need to be completed without much in the way of guidance. This initiative extends to communication as well. When they need something from leadership or a teammate, they must be willing to speak up.
Successful team members also take the first step when it comes to collaboration, reaching out to others to complete projects or brainstorm solutions to problems. Rather than waiting to be told what to do, they proactively identify concerns and opportunities and then take action to address them accordingly. This requires them to leverage the communication tools at their disposal and develop the necessary relationships to accomplish their goals.
5: Everyone Needs to be Flexible
Flexibility is one of the greatest advantages of virtual teams, so it makes sense that it would also be one of the most important qualities for team members. If team members are rigid in their approach to challenges or performing tasks, they will very likely struggle to be successful in a virtual team. Scheduling issues, ambiguities in communication, and changing priorities can leave team members who don’t adapt well feeling confused and unclear about how to proceed.
An effective virtual team member, on the other hand, is good at shifting focus when the situation demands it. Whether it’s a change in strategy or an unexpected problem, virtual teams are often forced to completely rethink how they’re going to accomplish their goals. If a team member can manage unpredictability and avoid becoming fixated upon priorities that are no longer urgent, they will likely thrive in a virtual context.
As organizations continue to make use of virtual teams, it’s important to understand that virtual teaming is not for everyone. Understanding the characteristics necessary for succeeding in a virtual environment is very important. Consideration should be made to select individuals who are accustomed to working virtually but skills can be learned and work processes can help those who do not have prior experience. Organizations and virtual team leaders would benefit from considering who needs to be on virtual teams to ensure that high-quality decisions are made and across-the-board buy-in is achieved.