“You have no choice but to operate in a world shaped by globalization and the information revolution. There are two options: Adapt or die… You need to plan the way a fire department plans. It cannot anticipate fires, so it has to shape a flexible organization that is capable of responding to unpredictable events.”
These words from Andrew S. Grove of Intel ring true to companies of all sizes as their leaders consider how to adapt to the global business landscape.
In this new world, virtual teams are more prevalent than ever. Companies increasingly rely on them to achieve their business objectives and get a leg up on their competition. In other cases, virtual teams are more opportunistic, emerging in response to a particular event or need.
But the fact that virtual teams continue to grow in popularity doesn’t mean they’re always being used and managed properly.
Challenges for Virtual Teams and Virtual Leaders
Many organizations simply recycle the same guidelines they were using for all of their virtual teams and hope for the best. OnPoint’s research on virtual teams uncovered several factors that were cause for concern:
- In our study of 304 individuals who worked on virtual teams, 25 percent reported their teams were not fully effective
- Third party stakeholders who were familiar with a team’s performance were asked to rate its effectiveness. Of 48 teams, 27 percent were perceived to be less than effective
- Almost half of the virtual team leaders in the study were not meeting expectations
So what should organizations and virtual team leaders do to ensure that teams are set up for success? Our research found that there are five key lessons to follow:
No Trust, No Virtual Team
Effective virtual team leaders constantly look for ways to infuse team spirit and trust into their teams, which helps to boost cooperation. However, less effective leaders find it difficult to build relationships and develop collaboration.
Successful virtual team leaders help build an environment that supports collaboration by finding ways for team members to interact and communicate informally. For example, you might choose to use ‘real-time’ technologies such as instant messaging and texting to help increase more spontaneous communication and improve feedback.
Another important component of promoting collaboration is managing conflicts that emerge.
Because conflict can often go undetected in virtual environments, you must proactively look for signs of it and quickly take steps to resolve it. This involves virtual leaders asking questions, seeking feedback from all team members and being aware of potential conflicts before they arise.
What are the warning signs that trust and collaboration may not be working? You may notice team members work independently and do not collaborate with other members of the team. You may also notice that an “us versus them” mentality has developed between locations or sub-groups. What can you do to improve communication and relationships among team members? We suggest several actions:
- Bring your team together face-to-face at least once early on
- Develop a team page or channel, such as Slack, where virtual team members can share ideas and updates and get to know one another
- Find ways to “spotlight” team members and celebrate their success with informal awards
- Create ways to virtually celebrate team successes as they achieve goals
- Partner team members at different locations and rotate these periodically
Create a “High Touch” Environment for Virtual Teams
Technology has made virtual teaming possible, but is not a perfect substitute for human interaction. One of the greatest performance barriers is the inability to replicate a high touch environment in a virtual setting. While meeting face-to-face requires time and expense, virtual teams that invest in one or two such meetings per year perform better overall than those that do not.
Poor communication, a lack of engagement, and lack of attention during virtual meetings are a few of the warning signs that a high touch environment has not been achieved. There are, however, several things that can be done to reverse this situation:
- Leverage video conferencing and chat tools to increase spontaneous communication
- Use project management tools to create a sense of shared space
- Carefully choose communication technologies that match the specific task
- Develop a communication strategy but re-examine these processes over time
Watch Out for Virtual Team Performance Peaks
While virtual teams working together for more than three years tend to be more successful than those working together for less time, many virtual teams face a performance peak around the one year mark.
What are the warning signs of a performance peak? Team members get along well but do not produce results, there is an apparent lack of direction, and team members are not committing adequate time to the team. What can you do about performance peaks? Here are four actions you can take:
- Clearly define team roles and accountabilities to minimize frustration and misunderstandings that can damage morale and derail productivity
- Review team processes regularly
- Periodically collect feedback from various stakeholders both inside and outside the team to assess the team’s performance
- Based on the outcomes, identify barriers to high performance, as well as steps that can be taken to overcome these barriers
Empower Virtual Team Members
Because people are often expected to work more independently in virtual teams, finding ways to delegate work, to give team members freedom to make decisions and to monitor work become particularly important for success.
The best virtual leaders set up processes for monitoring progress and follow up regularly, without micromanaging. Monitoring makes it possible to identify potential problems early on and prevent disruptions in team activities and service to customers. Monitoring also ensures that your team members are held accountable for the quality of their work. To accomplish this, we suggest that you:
- Set people up for success by clarifying expectations, who’s accountable and when is an action due?
- Have regular calls or check-in meetings to review progress on team goals and deliverables. Don’t wait until the due date to check in!
- Keep your promises and commitments. As soon as you realize that you cannot meet a commitment, let team members know and solicit their help to get things done.
- When a deadline is missed or a commitment is not met, instead of looking to blame a team member, ask and encourage people to ask three “accountability questions:What did I do that might have contributed to this problem? What can I do to get things back on track? What can I do to prevent this from happening again?
Virtual Team “Soft” Skills Are Essential
The presence of “soft” skills makes a difference in virtual team performance. We found that virtual teams that have been through skill development activities perform better than those that have not. Yet, despite the strong link between training and virtual team performance, many organizations do not make this investment. What can you do to develop virtual team members and improve performance?
- Use selection criteria or leadership assessments when identifying potential virtual team members
- Carry out team building workshops, ideally conducted at an initial or subsequent face-to-face team meeting, to help team members get to know each other personally, strengthen working relationships, and create team momentum that can enhance team effectiveness
- Assess development needs for team members and team leaders and conduct online or in-person workshops focused on these areas
- Reassess needs regularly and making changes as needed without waiting for project completion
The Bottom Line for Improving Virtual Team Effectiveness
Given the prevalence of virtual teamwork and its importance in achieving business objectives, we were surprised by how many teams are rated as ineffective. What was most startling in our research is that many companies either do not realize that their teams are underperforming, or despite their investments in these teams, they do not take the time to focus on enhancing their effectiveness. The good news, however, is that organizations and virtual team leaders can employ these five lessons to improve the performance of their virtual teams.
OnPoint has extensive experience developing virtual teams and virtual team leaders. To learn more about our solutions for virtual team building, browse our program guide.