Virtual teams are on the rise. As companies expand and telecommuting becomes more common, workgroups often span offices, shared workspaces, private homes, and hotel rooms.
Virtual teams let employees manage their work and personal lives with more flexibility, as well as interact with colleagues around the world. They also give organizations the ability to significantly reduce their real estate costs.
However, virtual teams are hard to get right. An MIT Sloan study of 70 remote teams discovered that only 18% considered their performance “highly successful” and the remaining 82% fell short of their intended goals. In fact, fully one-third of the teams in the sample rated their performance as largely unsuccessful.
So the question then becomes, how do you create an effective virtual team?
The makeup of your team should be your starting point. To be successful you need to hire or develop people suited to do virtual work, place them in groups of the right size, and divide the labor appropriately.
Successful virtual employees all have some traits in common:
- Good communication skills
- High emotional intelligence
- The ability to work independently
- The resilience to recover from problems that inevitably arise
- Awareness of and sensitivity to other cultures
When building your team, you should conduct behavioral interviews and personality tests like the Disc Assessment to screen for the above qualities. When you inherit a team, use the same tools to assess their strengths and weaknesses; then train them in the skills they’re lacking, encourage them to coach one another, and consider reassignment for those who don’t make progress.
Cultural differences and language can create misunderstandings and communication difficulties for virtual teams. The leader should address this by ensuring that their teams take the time to get to know each other and set group norms. The use of paraphrasing can help listeners check their understanding of what is being said (or not said).
Teams are getting bigger, however the most effective virtual teams are small ones—fewer than 10 people. Research shows that team members reduce their effort when they feel less responsible for the output. The idea of “pods” helps combat this reduction in productivity. Pods are made up of small groups of 4-6 individuals who complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Another challenge for large teams is ensuring inclusive communication. It takes only 10 conversations for every person on a team of five to touch base with everyone else, but that number rises to 78 for a team of 13, says Harvard psychology professor Richard Hackman. So to optimize your teams’ output, don’t assemble too many individuals in one group.
Choosing technology that is fit for this purpose can help to moderate the impact of personality factors, mask perceived status differences, distribute participation opportunities, and focus attention on the message instead of the messenger.
Some of the most effective teams are those who use technology to draw on the unique insights of individual team members. For example, more introverted team members are more likely to add a point of view in online forums.
The X-team strategy advocated by MIT professor Deborah Ancona defines three tiers of team members. We recommend applying this strategy to your service pods:
- Core: The core consists of pod leaders who are responsible for strategy. This is a cross-functional team that will work with other team leaders and initiate discussion of what an excellent outcome would look like.
- Operational: The operational team will lead and make decisions about day-to-day work but not tackle the larger issues handled by the core. They will schedule who will do what by when.
- Outer: The outer network consists of all other team members in the pod. They will integrate diverse efforts by being a hub of activity.
Leaders need to be more structured and proactive than they would when managing face-to-face teams. Lack of accountability can be an issue for virtual teams when working cross-functionally. Leaders need to take extra care to define and communicate roles in virtual teams to prevent diffusion of responsibility. Both team leaders and team members (particularly new members) are recommended to get to know the strengths and capabilities of their virtual teammates. Strive to avoid “capability invisibility,” which is when not knowing your teammates leads to situations where people are given tasks that they are not equipped to do or their useful skills are not fully utilized.
Many studies have found that employees don’t necessarily leave their jobs because of the work; they leave because of poor leadership. The best predictor of success for leading teams is the experience of having done it before.
There are some key behaviors that are critical in face-to-face environments and must be amplified in virtual ones.
Cultivate Trust: Early on, leaders should encourage trust and empathy, allowing their team members to describe their backgrounds, the value they hope to add to the group, and the way they prefer to work. Relationship-building should be an ongoing process. Virtual teammates tend to chat about their lives less often than those in the office; to combat this, take five minutes at the beginning of conference calls for everyone to share a recent professional success or some personal news. This is one of the easiest ways to overcome the isolation that can happen when people don’t work together physically.
Foster Open Dialogue: Once the leader has established trust, they have set everyone up for open dialogue. Leaders of virtual groups must push members to be blunt with one another by modeling “caring criticism.” While delivering negative feedback, use phrases like “I might suggest” and “Think about this.” When receiving such feedback, thank the person who offered it and confirm points of agreement. Some teams will designate one team member to act as the official advocate for candor. This individual will take notice and speak up when something is being left unsaid and they will call out criticism that’s not constructive. Additionally, you should also recognize people for practices that improve team communication and collaboration.
Clarify Goals: It is important to establish a common vision and purpose. More importantly, frame the work in terms of your team members’ individual needs and ambitions. Explain to everyone the why of a project, and what benefits will result, then keep reiterating the message. Establish specific guidelines for team interaction—rules reduce uncertainty and enhance trust in social groups, thereby improving productivity. It is important to note that leaders need to make it clear that multitasking on calls is not okay. According to a recent study, 82% of people admit to doing other things, from surfing the web to using the bathroom, during team calls. But virtual collaboration requires that everyone be mentally present and engaged. Explain your policy, and when the group has a virtual meeting, regularly call on people to share their thoughts. Better yet, switch to video, which can essentially eliminate multitasking.
Establish response times to queries and requests from one another, and outline follow-up steps if someone is slow to act. Virtual employees often say, “I thought it was obvious that…” or “I didn’t think I needed to spell that out,” so insist that requests be specific. Instead of saying “Circle back to me,” state whether you want to give final input on a decision or simply be informed after the decision is made. Always follow up with an e-mail to minimize misunderstandings.
Have Fun: Video conferencing has come a long way, so make sure to use some of the amazing features available, such as displaying a virtual background image, using emoticons and music to introduce a new idea, etc. Using your technology to introduce an element of fun goes a long way in virtual team building.
Leaders should have a plan to bring their virtual teams together at certain times and stages that are most critical to the organization. Whenever possible, fly new hires into headquarters for onboarding, so they are able to meet team members in person. In the absence of visual cues and body language, misunderstandings often arise, especially on larger teams. Virtual leaders need to continually motivate members to deliver their best and sustain momentum by going beyond email updates and weekly conference calls. When team members begin to feel disconnected and less engaged, their contributions decline. Make it a priority for your team to get together to celebrate the achievement of short-term goals or to work through tough problems.
Virtual teaming affords an opportunity to increase and leverage cultural and geographic diversity, yet comes with a unique set of challenges. Research shows that those challenges can be overcome through concerted effort and discipline—and by fostering an inclusive virtual environment. Organizations that optimize the use of virtual teams by implementing the strategies highlighted here will be well placed to reap the rewards of a diverse workplace.