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What the Best Virtual Teams Have in Common

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Posted by Darleen DeRosa October 21, 2016

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Does the following scenario sound familiar? You’re leading a big project. You’re located in California, but members of your software development team are located in New York and England, while others are sprinkled across parts of the United States and Canada.

Because you’re located in several different areas, most of your communications are done via email, with a rare phone call or video chat mixed in.

While virtual teams are becoming commonplace these days, many of these teams and their leaders fall short of their potential. Research has found nearly half of virtual team leaders were not meeting expectations and 25 percent of teams were not as effective as they could be.

How can you ensure your teams meet and even exceed expectations? OnPoint’s own research, outlined in our Virtual Team Study, uncovered some surprising findings about what the best virtual teams have in common. Here are three important factors to consider the next time you’re building a virtual team.

Team Composition Matters

While it may be tempting to include several people from different departments on your team, resist the urge to add them if they aren’t essential. Successful virtual teams have stable and consistent membership, which gives team members time to build lasting relationships with each other. They also have fewer team members. In fact, the most effective teams had fewer than 13 members, according to our research.

Another reason to avoid including a large number of members on your team: lower performing teams reported members just didn’t have the time to focus on the needs of the group because they were involved with too many additional teams.

Additionally, it helps if team members share similar job functions. Our research revealed that the majority of lower-performing virtual teams were cross-functional teams. This doesn’t mean cross-functional teams cannot be successful, but they need to consider that they may face unique challenges that could inhibit performance. In this situation, building trust and collaboration across organizational boundaries is essential.

Finally, teams with a member tenure of three or more years were more successful than those with shorter tenures. Having a longer team tenure suggests members have had enough time to improve their communication and execution practices.

Communication and Training Are Key To Virtual Team Building

Technology has no doubt made teamwork more efficient from a distance, but there’s still something to be said for meeting in person. Having a face-to-face kickoff meeting within the first 90 days of the creation of the team has been associated with improved team effectiveness. After team members have had the chance to meet face-to-face, the virtual team should meet more frequently. In fact, 63 percent of high-performing virtual teams met at least once a week, and they also worked to continuously improve elements like communication amongst members.

In the absence of face-to-face time during regular meetings, the right technology is essential. Perhaps not surprisingly, members of high-performing teams reported they had the necessary technology to communicate and work together effectively. These team members also reported using video conferencing more frequently than their lower-performing counterparts.

Once your team members have met face-to-face, are meeting more frequently and have the right technologies, they should receive skill training sessions. Teams that had more than four skill development or training sessions performed significantly better than those with less than four sessions.

Virtual Leadership Impacts Performance

A virtual team leader can make or break a team. Leaders of successful virtual teams are able to lead from a distance, compensating for challenges like lack of resources and time by focusing on building collaboration.

Leaders of high performing teams also had direct reporting relationships with their team members. This allowed for improved communication, which increased the likelihood of team members having shared goals and clear roles. It also allowed for the leader to follow through and hold team members accountable.

Several factors can affect the success of your virtual teams, but you can set the foundation for productive interaction by considering team composition, communication and training.

OnPoint offers a number of programs designed to help virtual teams accelerate performance. These programs are based on our own extensive research in this area and are available in a variety of formats, including instructor-led and self-guided e-learning modules. We can also work with your organization to develop customized programs. To learn more about training topics and formats, browse our program guide.

Download Leading From A Distance Program Guide

Topics: Virtual Teams, Work Smarter Virtually

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