Virtual teams really are different: 6 lessons for creating successful ones

RP news wires

Consider this:The office of the future might not be an office at all. As virtual teams become more prevalent, we edge ever closer to a culture where "work" means logging in to your company's online project management site from your home or collaborating with people who each work for different teams or functions at their local co-working establishment. "Company headquarters" is becoming more of a concept than an actual building. And as physical location becomes less important, companies can hire the best talent regardless of their location. In addition, companies can enhance their efficiency by handing off work across time zones, enabling them to be productive around the clock.

But far too often, say Darleen DeRosa and Rick Lepsinger, this vision of the global economy workplace falls short of today's reality. In other words, virtual teams may be increasingly popular...but they're not necessarily successful.

"Today it isn't uncommon for companies to have as many as 50 percent of their employees working on virtual teams," says Lepsinger, coauthor along with Darleen DeRosa of Virtual Team Success: A Practical Guide for Working and Leading from a Distance (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-470-53296-6, $50.00, www.onpointconsultingllc.com). "It's not hard to see why. Advances in technology have made it easier to organize and manage dispersed groups of people. And competitive pressures and the needs of today's global market workforce have made virtual teams a necessity for some organizations."

Unfortunately, explain the authors, having solid business reasons for implementing a virtual strategy does not mean that strategy is always going to be executed well. The problem is that too many companies treat their virtual teams the same way they treat teams that share the same physical locations.

"Our research finds that many organizations recycle the same guidelines and best practices they use for their co-located teams and hope for the best," says DeRosa. "Frankly, that just doesn't work. Virtual teams and face-to-face teams are the proverbial 'apples and oranges' – and leaders who recognize this fact are the ones whose teams succeed."

To help organizations maximize their investment in virtual collaboration, OnPoint Consulting conducted a study of forty-eight virtual teams to understand the success factors of top performing virtual teams. Surprisingly, 27 percent of virtual teams in the global study were not fully performing. Given these results, the authors recognized the need for a resource that could help organizations and leaders enhance virtual team performance – and so they wrote Virtual Team Success.

Through the study, the authors recognized that virtual teams regularly fall victim to four pitfalls:

  • Lack of clear goals, direction, or priorities – Because it is tougher to communicate with and inform team members who are geographically dispersed, it is often difficult to keep all team members focused on the same goals, especially over time. 
  • Lack of clear roles among team members– In virtual teams, it is especially important for team members to clearly understand their individual roles and how their work impacts other team members.
  • Lack of cooperation and trust – Because there is a lack of face-to-face contact inherent in virtual teamwork, the process of establishing trust and relationships that lead to group cooperation can be very arduous. Over time, this lack of collaboration can lead to a lack of trust amongst team members. 
  • Lack of engagement – With virtual teams, people can easily become bored and "check out" because there is a lack of dynamic face-to-face interaction and because there are more distractions.

Eliminate these pitfalls and a team's chances for success greatly increase. Below DeRosa and Lepsinger identify six lessons – excerpted from the book – for creating successful virtual teams.

Lesson No. 1: Focus on people issues. Essentially, successful teaming depends largely on the effective interaction of team members. Virtual teams need to compensate for the inherent lack of human contact by supporting team spirit, trust, and productivity. The authors identify warning signs that indicate that a team's "people issues" need more attention.

"You may notice that team members work independently and do not reach out to other team members to collaborate," says Lepsinger. "You may also notice that an 'us versus them' mentality has developed between locations or sub-groups. The truth is, when everyone is engaged and communicating, it is much easier to succeed as a virtual team. When team members build relationships with one another, it prevents people issues from taking over and impacting team efficiency."

Lesson No. 1 in Action:

  • Develop a team web page where virtual team members can share information and get to know one another.
  • Create ways for team members to interact and communicate informally. Use real-time communication tools like Instant Messaging or social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter to create a virtual water cooler of sorts that allows people on virtual teams to communicate more spontaneously.
  • Build a collective online "resource bank" to share information and experiences.
  • Find ways to "spotlight" team members.
  • Send electronic newsletters or updates to the team.
  • Create ways to virtually celebrate successes as a team.
  • Partner team members at different locations on projects and rotate these periodically. 

Lesson No. 2: No trust, no team. Task-based trust is one of the factors that differentiated top performing teams. In virtual teams trust seems to develop more readily at the task level than at the interpersonal level. There are four warning signs that trust is in low supply in virtual teams: 1) team members do not refer to themselves as "we"; 2) they do not appear to know one another very well; 3) they are openly negative; and 4) they do not regard others as credible.

"If you want trust to develop among your team members, you have to set the foundation," says DeRosa. "It doesn't simply develop because a team has been working together for a while." 

Lesson No. 2 in Action:

  • Make sure teams meet face-to-face at least once early on in the team's formation. Spend some part of the meeting focused on building relationships and learning about team members' capabilities.
  • Be sure team members feel empowered to make and act on decisions. Because virtual leaders do not have "face time" with team members to check in, leaders are more likely to micromanage team members without realizing it.
  • Help people manage conflicts, not avoid them. Conflict is likely to be ignored or may escalate quickly in a virtual setting. Therefore, leaders need to more proactively manage conflict.
  • The team leader should model and reinforce these positive behaviors. 

Lesson No. 3: "Soft" skills are essential. The presence of "soft" skills makes a difference in virtual team performance. Lepsinger and DeRosa found that virtual teams that have been through team-building and interpersonal skill development activities perform better than those that have not.

"Despite the strong link between training and virtual team performance, many organizations do not make this investment," notes Lepsinger. "Another all-too-common practice is selecting team members based solely on their technical skills without considering key attributes like their interpersonal skills. The obvious solution is to include characteristics like effective communication and collaboration in the selection criteria."

Lesson No. 3 in Action:

  • Use criteria and/or assessments when selecting individuals for virtual teams.
  • Use team-building sessions – ideally conducted at an initial or subsequent face-to-face team meeting – to help team members strengthen working relationships and create team momentum that can enhance team effectiveness.
  • Assess development needs for team members and team leaders and conduct skill-building focused on these areas.
  • Reassess needs over time.

Lesson No. 4: Watch out for performance peaks. While virtual teams who have been working together for more than three years tend to be more successful than teams working together for less time, many virtual teams face a performance peak around the one-year mark. After that, performance tends to level off or even decline.

"High-performing virtual teams avoid this problem by implementing strategies to overcome this peak," explains DeRosa. "When you see the warning signs of stagnant performance – team members get along well but do not produce results, there's an apparent lack of direction, or team members don't commit adequate time to the team – it's time to take action."

Lesson No. 4 in Action:

  • Clearly define team roles and accountabilities to minimize frustration and misunderstandings that can damage morale and derail productivity.
  • Review and refine team processes regularly.
  • Periodically examine the level of team performance. Collect feedback from various stakeholders 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.   

Lesson No. 5: Create a "high touch" environment. Electronic technology has made virtual teaming possible, but it 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. That's why, in addition to figuring out ways to make virtual interaction more "human," it's critical that companies arrange for their virtual team members to meet in person at least once a year.

"Yes, they require time and expense, but virtual teams that invest in one or two such meetings per year perform better overall than those that do not," says Lepsinger. "You'll know you haven't achieved a high touch environment with your virtual team if they communicate poorly, aren't fully engaged, and don't pay attention during virtual meetings." 

Lesson No. 5 in Action:

  • Leverage synchronous tools (e.g., Instant Messaging) to increase spontaneous communication.
  • Use tools such as electronic bulletin boards to create a sense of shared space.
  • Carefully choose communication technologies that are most appropriate to the specific task. For instance, email is good for simple information sharing, while conference calls are better suited for interactive sharing of ideas or plans.
  • Make wider use of videoconferencing. "Our survey data suggests that teams that use video technology perform better in general than those that do not," says Lepsinger.

Lesson No. 6: Virtual team leadership matters. Leadership is the factor most important to the success of virtual teams. OnPoint's study and other research shows that leadership does, in fact, have a statistically significant correlation with higher performance on virtual teams. To overcome the limitations of distance and to be fully effective, team leaders in a virtual environment must be especially sensitive to interpersonal communication and cultural factors.

There are four key warning signs that a team leader is not up to snuff: 1) the team is not meeting its performance objectives, and deliverables are delayed or of poor quality; 2) relationships between the team members and the leader aren't strong; 3) the leader is not clear about the team's direction or purpose; and 4) the team leader pays more attention to team members who are at his/her location or whom he/she gets along with.

"Organizations can avoid this performance barrier by selecting team leaders who not only have the necessary technical skills but also have the soft skills required to effectively lead in a virtual environment," says DeRosa. "If you're a team leader, it's not easy to learn that you may be the cause of your team's poor performance. But there are many ways to improve your performance and get your team back on track."

Lesson No. 6 in Action:

  • Set clear goals and direction and revisit these as priorities shift.
  • Engage team members in the development of team strategy.
  • Provide time for team building through periodic face-to-face meetings.
  • 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. 

"We've seen too many well-intentioned companies fail because they treated their virtual teams the same way they treat their co-located teams," says Lepsinger. "And then there are the organizations that start virtual teams in response to an opportunity or problem without planning or proper follow-up – never a recipe for success."

"Organizations frequently set up virtual teams to address a particular business need," concludes DeRosa. "However, they jump in without really understanding what they are getting themselves into. Simply put, better planning could dramatically improve their odds for success. Now, there is a formula for success. All today's virtual teams must do is put it to work."

About the authors:
Darleen DeRosa, Ph.D., is a managing partner at OnPoint Consulting. Darleen brings more twelve years of management consulting experience, with deep expertise in the areas of talent/succession management, executive assessment, virtual teams, and organizational assessment. Her client list includes Accenture, Bayer Pharmaceuticals, Daiichi-Sankyo, Gerdau Ameristeel, and Johnson & Johnson. Darleen received her B.A. in psychology from the College of the Holy Cross and her M.A. and Ph.D. in social/organizational psychology from Temple University. Darleen is a member of The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP), METRO, and other professional organizations. In addition to Virtual Team Success, she has published book chapters and articles in journals such as Human Resource Management.

Richard Lepsinger is president of OnPoint Consulting and has a twenty-five-year track record of success as an organizational consultant and executive. His client list includes Bayer Pharmaceuticals, Citibank, Coca-Cola Company, ConocoPhillips, Goldman Sachs, Johnson & Johnson, NYSE Euronext, PeopleSoft, Prudential, and Subaru of America, among many others. In addition to writing Closing the Execution Gap, he has coauthored four books on leadership including Flexible Leadership: Creating Value by Balancing Multiple Challenges and Choices, The Art and Science of 360° Feedback, The Art and Science of Competency Models: Pinpointing Critical Success Factors in Organizations, and Virtual Team Success: A Practical Guide for Working and Leading from a Distance, all published by Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

For more information, visit www.onpointconsultingllc.com.

About the book:
Virtual Team Success: A Practical Guide for Working and Leading from a Distance (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-470-53296-6, $50.00, www.onpointconsultingllc.com) is available from major online booksellers.

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