Virtual teams are becoming an increasingly common feature of today’s organizations. From international corporations with skilled employees spread across multiple countries to smaller businesses with largely remote workforces, companies of all kinds are using virtual teams to develop innovative solutions that deliver measurable business results.
Although functionally similar to a colocated team whose members meet face-to-face to accomplish a shared goal, virtual teams are distinguished by their geographic dispersion. Separated by distance and potentially by time, these teams present special challenges for companies looking to organize them into a coherent, functioning body. Even with effective leadership in place, the challenges of working in a virtual context have the potential to undermine the team if special care isn’t taken from the beginning.
Teams that are set up and launched properly have a much greater chance of producing beneficial results and maximizing the investment companies make in them. Here are 5 tips for how to successfully launch a virtual team.
Assess Your Organization’s Capacity to Support Virtual Team Work
Before turning to how the team is organized, companies need to make sure they have all the tools in place to support remote employees. Communication and collaboration are critical to virtual team success. Fortunately, there are many software solutions that make it easier than ever before for team members to share information and keep in regular contact with each other.
Cloud productivity suites like Google G-Suite and Microsoft Office 365 make it possible for multiple team members in different places and time zones to share and contribute to document-based projects simultaneously. Video conferencing software like Zoom allows them to organize virtual meetings to share progress and develop strategies while building personal relationships. Messaging and file sharing programs like Slack make it easy to talk to team members as if they were in the same office, and project management software can keep everyone on task and measure the team’s progress toward its goals.
Before launching virtual teams, companies should settle upon the software tools they intend to use and make sure that the resources are in place to train employees on how to use them.
Choose the Right People
When organizing a virtual team, the first question organizations should consider is how many people should be on the team. OnPoint Consulting’s studies on virtual team performance have found that team’s are more likely to succeed when they’re held to a manageable size. Limiting membership to five to ten people is preferable because it makes regular communication and contact among team members feasible and allows for everyone to have a clearly defined role, which contributes to a more cohesive team. If the team can’t be held below ten members for some reason, it should be broken into sub-teams, each one responsible for specific tasks or deliverables.
Regardless of the team’s size, it’s critically important that members possess the requisite skills to collaborate effectively from a distance. While they should have the technical skills necessary to do the work in question, they also need to be motivated and capable of self-direction. Strong communication skills are highly recommended, as virtual teams are far more dependent upon good communication due to their lack of physical proximity. OnPoint research indicates that the three most important characteristics virtual team members need are strong interpersonal skills, initiative, and flexibility. It’s also important to make sure that leaders are well-aware of the challenges they will face managing a team remotely and are able to make the necessary adjustments.
Build Systems That Recognize and Reward Performance
After determining who will be named to the team, organizations need to put systems in place to encourage collaboration and reward performance. These evaluations should focus on the performance of the team as a whole, the contributions of individuals members, and the effectiveness of the team’s leader. Anyone who made significant contributions toward meeting team performance objectives should be singled out and recognized. E-certificates, e-newsletters, and virtual meetings are all good ways of celebrating both individual and group success. Recognizing and rewarding both team and individual achievements helps to reinforce the members’ commitment to the team and keeps them motivated.
Hold an Effective Kick-Off Meeting
While it can be difficult and expensive to bring all members of a virtual team together for a face-to-face kick-off meeting, it can be tremendously beneficial for the team’s long-term health. Meeting in person allows the team members to get to know who they will be working with and jump starts the process of building interpersonal relationships. It also provides an opportunity for the team to collectively establish structure, guidelines, and processes that will dictate how the team works going forward. This allows everyone to have a say in how they will collaborate and interact with one another. Roles should be clarified along with the team’s overarching goals, which can help to create a sense of purpose and commitment to the team’s emerging identity.
The value of meeting in person to build these relationships and establish norms will more than outweigh the expense of travel if it results in better team performance. OnPoint’s research has found that virtual teams that host physical kickoff meetings perform better than those that do not. If such a meeting is not possible, organizations should use video conferencing to organize a virtual meeting to discuss many of the same topics and provide an opportunity for team members to get to know one another.
Monitor and Assess Team Performance
Once a virtual team is organized and underway, organizations must ensure that systems are in place to measure performance regularly in order to assess the team’s effectiveness and health over time. Virtual teams need to be monitored very closely since issues that might be noticed quickly in a colocated team are far more likely to go unaddressed. Frequent feedback from team members and stakeholders can provide a good idea of what processes are working well and what areas need improvement. Key performance indicators (KPI) should be identified and tracked to provide hard data on how well a team is accomplishing its mission.
If irregularities or problems arise, they should be addressed as quickly as possible. Virtual team members may become less engaged if consistent issues make collaboration difficult or if leadership proves ineffective. Communication failures and unresolved conflict may require a reset of sorts that brings team members back to the drawing board to review their roles and responsibilities.
Virtual teams offer tremendous advantages to today’s organizations, allowing them to better leverage the knowledge and skills they have at their disposal to solve their most pressing challenges. Taking steps to make sure these teams have the very best start makes it more likely that they will succeed and deliver on their outstanding potential. Neglecting the details in the early stages of team formation can leave team members constantly scrambling to get on the right page with one another, distracting them from the tasks they should be focusing on collectively. If organizations are going to implement virtual teams, they owe it to themselves to provide them with every advantage possible from the onset.