Virtual teams are becoming the new fact of life for businesses all over the globe. However, while virtual teams are being used ever more frequently, that doesn’t mean that they’re being utilized or managed properly. In fact, OnPoint has found that many organizations try to apply the same basic guidelines and best practices they use for their co-located teams—which, unfortunately, doesn’t work very well.
To help businesses across the globe get more from their investments in virtual collaboration, OnPoint conducted a study of dozens of virtual teams to identify and understand the success factors that separate top-performing virtual teams from the less successful ones. Of the virtual teams surveyed, it was found that a full 27% of those teams were not “fully performing” up to their expected standards.
Why were these virtual teams failing? In the course of answering this question, OnPoint Consulting discovered six different “must-have” ingredients for facilitating effective virtual teamwork that form the recipe for virtual team success:
1: A Focus on People Issues
One of the basic issues with a virtual team is the lack of human contact. This lack of contact can result in a disassociation between team members that exacerbates any conflicts that arise. These interpersonal issues can contribute to an “us vs. them” mentality between team members in different locations or subgroups. The end result is a fractured team that fails to collaborate with one another—dragging down efficiency and productivity.
Some corrective actions you can take include:
- Developing a team page or adopting a collaboration software that allows virtual team members to share information and get to know one another.
- Creating methods for team members to interact and communicate effectively.
- Building a collective resource bank to share experiences.
- Finding ways to spotlight team members and recognize their contributions or celebrate successes.
- Sending newsletters and updates to the team.
- Partnering team members from different locations on projects and rotate partnerships so everyone ends up working closely with each team member at some point.
2: Trust Building
Trust is a major requirement for any team to function effectively. On a virtual team, it becomes even more crucial for success. In virtual teams, however, trust seems to develop more readily at the task level than it does on the interpersonal level—most likely because of the lack of personal contact.
Some warning signs that trust is lacking on a team include team members:
- Not referring to themselves as a part of a group—not saying “we” when talking about themselves or the team.
- Not appearing to know one another very well—showing no interest in the welfare and personal situations of others on the team.
- Are openly negative—both about the contributions of other team members and the general direction of the team’s work.
- Do not regard the commitments and assertions of others as credible—they may mock or discredit others who make promises.
If conditions of low trust exist, some effective countermeasures include:
- Holding face-to-face team meetings at least once early on in the team’s formation.
- Giving team members a place to hold truly “open” communication.
- Making team members feel empowered to make and act on decisions.
- Resolving conflicts that arise rather than avoiding them.
- Making sure that the team leader models these positive behaviors and reinforces them in the team.
3: Training in “Soft” Skills
So-called “soft” skills—those skills that facilitate effective interpersonal interactions—can make an enormous impact on a virtual team’s performance. Throughout its research, OnPoint has found that virtual teams who have been through team building and interpersonal skills training consistently outperform teams that have not undergone such training.
However, all too many organizations do not invest in such training, despite the strong link between interpersonal skills and team performance. Some things that can be done to help make sure virtual teams have strong interpersonal skills include:
- Using assessments that emphasize soft skills when selecting or vetting virtual team members.
- Holding team-building sessions—preferably conducted at one of the face-to-face team meetings—to help team members get to know each other personally and strengthen working relationships.
- Assessing development needs for team members and team leaders. Then, conducting skill building exercises focused on the areas for improvement that are identified.
- Periodically reassessing needs over time.
4: Identifying and Resolving “Performance Peaks”
Virtual teams that have worked together for a while tend to be more successful than teams that have only recently formed. However, many of these long-standing teams face a performance peak right around the one-year mark. High-performing teams can avoid a major decline in productivity following the performance peak by implementing a few specific strategies—lower-performing teams struggle to overcome these peaks because they lack an appropriate strategy.
So, if you see the warning signs of a performance peak—such as team members getting along, but not producing results, an apparent lack of team direction, and team members not committing adequate time to the team—it may be time to take one or more of the following corrective actions:
- Clearly define team roles and accountabilities to minimize potential frustrations and misunderstandings that derail productivity and damage morale.
- Regularly review team processes.
- Periodically examine the level of the team’s performance—also collect feedback from various stakeholders to assess team performance.
- Based on the outcomes of the assessments, identify barriers to high performance and the steps that can be taken to overcome/remove these barriers.
5: Creating a “High Touch” Environment
Advances in telecommunications technology have made it easier than ever to work on a virtual team, but it still isn’t a perfect replacement for direct human interaction. The inability to replicate a high touch environment—one where people can tap each other on the shoulder and get that interpersonal interaction—remains one of the greatest performance barriers on virtual teams.
Face-to-face meetings may require time and expense for virtual teams, but making the investment to hold such meetings once or twice a year can help the team perform better overall by providing a high touch environment.
Some warning signs of a lack of a high touch environment include poor communication, a lack of engagement, and a lack of attention during virtual meetings. Some ways to remedy the loss of a high touch environment include:
- Leveraging synchronous tools (e.g., Instant Messaging) to increase spontaneous communication.
- Using tools such as electronic bullet/message boards to create a sense of shared space.
- Carefully choosing communication technologies that are most appropriate to the specific task at hand.
- Developing a communication strategy—but re-examining these processes over time.
- Making wider use of videoconferencing to simulate face-to-face communication.
6: Effective Virtual Team Leadership
Leadership remains the most important factor for the success of virtual teams. OnPoint’s study, as well as other research, shows that effective leadership has a statistically significant correlation with higher performance on virtual teams. To be effective, team leaders in a virtual environment must be especially sensitive to interpersonal, communication, and cultural factors so they are able to overcome the limitations imposed by distance.
Some warning signs of an ineffective virtual team leader include:
- The team consistently failing to meet performance objectives—and deliverables are often late or of poor quality.
- Relationships between team members and the virtual team leader are characterized by stress, delayed communication, and best described as “dysfunctional.”
- The leader is unclear about the team’s direction, purpose, and objectives.
- The team leader pays more attention to co-located team members than to remote team members—or team members who are their “favorites.”
The best way for organizations to avoid this particular performance problem is to select team leaders not only based on technical skills, but on their soft skills as well. In a virtual team environment, soft skills can have a major impact on team performance.
If you’re a team leader on a virtual team, it’s important to make a self-assessment to determine whether you might be the cause of poor performance on the team. This can be a hard thing to confront, but it is necessary. However, should you find that you, as a team leader, are facing this particular performance barrier, there are a few things you can do:
- Set clear goals and direction for the team, revisiting them as priorities shift.
- Engage team members in development of team strategy.
- Provide time for team building and coordinate periodic face-to-face meetings.
- Find ways to ensure that team members feel included.
- Provide timely feedback to team members; be responsive and accessible.
- Emphasize common interests and values and reinforce cooperation and trust.
- Create a system to easily integrate new team members.
- Teach the importance of conflict resolution.
- Celebrate team achievements and successes.
Organizations that “get it right” know that there are stark differences between their virtual teams and their co-located teams. Unfortunately, all too many organizations have yet to effectively act on this critical insight.
There are many well-intentioned companies that have failed or have been harmed because of the tendency to treat virtual teams and co-located teams in the same way. Worse yet is when virtual teams are started on a whim without the necessary planning or follow-up—this is never a recipe for success.
However, with better planning and follow-up, organizations can dramatically improve the success of their virtual teams—achieving a better ROI for their investment.