Virtual teams have become increasingly common as organizations look for talented employees despite their geographic location. While many organizations are adopting a virtual team model, not every organization uses virtual teams to their fullest potential.
In a study of 48 virtual teams and hundreds of telecommuters and virtual team members designed to identify the factors that drive success for top-performing virtual teams, OnPoint Consulting LLC discovered that more than a quarter (27 percent) of virtual teams were not “fully performing.”
6 lessons for working with virtual teams
So, why do some virtual teams succeed when others fail? Here are a few lessons that can be gleaned from working with successful virtual teams:
Focus on people issues.
No trust, no team.
Soft skills make a difference.
Top-performing teams seek continuous improvement.
A high-touch environment is key for high performance.
Leadership has a significant impact on team performance.
Let’s look at each lesson in more detail.
1. Focus on people issues
One of the primary challenges faced by virtual teams is the lack of direct, face-to-face contact. High-performing teams compensate for the lack of human contact by identifying and focusing on “people issues” that exist on the team to foster team spirit, trust and productivity.
Some warning signs that there are people issues that need fixing include:
- Team members working independently or not effectively collaborating.
- The prevalence of an “us-versus-them” mentality between locations or sub-groups.
- Lack of interaction between team members.
Some strategies for improving collaboration and communication between virtual team members include:
- Using dedicated social media pages or team communication tools to create a shared “team page” where virtual team members can share information and get to know one another.
- Creating opportunities for face-to-face interactions that build rapport.
- Building a “resource bank” for team members to share their experiences.
- Finding ways to highlight the accomplishments and contributions of different team members and celebrate them.
- Having team members partner with one another at different locations and rotate teams periodically.
2. No trust, no team
Trust is a crucial factor for effective collaboration on any team. Virtual teams have a unique challenge in that they initially develop trust at the task level more easily than at the interpersonal level. It often takes longer to build interpersonal trust when people are working virtually.
Research shows that virtual teams have an easier time building interpersonal trust if they:
- Meet face-to-face early on during the team’s formation.
- Have open and honest communication.
- Feel empowered to make (and then act on) their own decisions.
- Address conflicts early on.
- Follow a team leader who models and reinforces these positive behaviors.
3. Soft skills make a difference
While it’s important for team members to have skills directly related to their jobs, so-called “soft skills” can be even more vital for long-term team success. Research shows that virtual teams that undergo team building and interpersonal skill development consistently outperform teams that do not.
Some things that companies can do to bolster their virtual teams’ soft skills include:
- Using assessments when building virtual teams to select people who have the appropriate skills.
- Conducting team building sessions — usually during the initial or face-to-face team meeting — to help team members socialize and get to know one another.
- Continuously assessing development needs for team members and leaders — then conducting skill building focused on identified areas of improvement.
4. Top-performing teams seek continuous improvement
Some virtual teams find that they tend to work better the longer they are together. However, many virtual teams encounter a “performance peak” about one year into their time working together.
As such, it is critical that virtual teams get ongoing feedback about their effectiveness over time.
High-performing virtual teams take a number of actions to achieve continuous improvement, including:
- Clearly defining team roles and responsibilities to minimize miscommunications and frustration factors that impair results.
- Regularly reviewing team processes to identify time-wasting activities and make improvements.
- Assessing overall team performance on a periodic basis — including collecting feedback from key stakeholders in the organization.
Doing all of the above can help identify barriers to performance that need to be removed or streamlined.
5. A high-touch environment is key for high performance
While telecommunications technology has grown immeasurably over the years, it still isn’t a perfect substitute for direct human interaction. This creates a performance barrier, as the lack of a high-touch environment impairs communication and engagement among virtual teams.
High-performing virtual teams frequently devote time and resources to creating a high-touch environment by having periodic face-to-face meetings and leveraging video conferencing to enhance remote meetings.
They also provide tools such as texting and shared sites and encourage team members to have non-work conversations with one another (just like they would do if they were co-located) to help build interpersonal relationships.
6. Leadership has a significant impact on team performance
In co-located teams, the ability of leaders to balance the demands of productivity, people and innovation has a significant impact on team performance. On virtual teams, the impact of an agile leader can be even more pronounced.
It is especially important for team leaders to possess situational awareness that is keen enough to make them sensitive to the interpersonal, communication and cultural factors that affect team cohesion and performance.
Some warning signs of an ineffective virtual team leader include:
- The team fails to meet performance objectives, and deliverables are delayed or low quality when they are completed.
- Relationships between the team members and leader are damaged — interactions are infrequent and curt or antagonistic when they do occur.
- The leader is often unclear about the team’s direction and goals.
- The leader frequently ignores remote team members in favor of co-located team members.
These issues create a performance barrier that lowers overall team performance and keeps team members from realizing their full potential. However, using assessments for selecting team leaders can help inform leadership decisions.
Identifying, developing, and selecting high-potential leaders can be a complicated and difficult process. However, there are tools and techniques that can help you identify and prepare high-potential leaders for success in a virtual team environment.
Closing thoughts on virtual teams
By focusing on people issues, building trust between team members, working on soft skills, continuously seeking new ways to improve performance, creating a “high-touch” environment, and choosing the right leaders, your organization can turn its virtual teams into top performers.