News & Insight
July 2004

Improving the Effectiveness of Virtual Teams

Given the global, 24/7, Internet-based nature of much of today’s work, it seems that virtually everyone is part of a virtual team.

Virtual teams offer many advantages:

  • They tap talent wherever it may reside.
  • They enable organizations to leverage intellectual capacity worldwide.
  • They empower global businesses with a cultural richness that cannot be found except in some of the world’s largest, most cosmopolitan regions.

Whether it is offshoring or product development staffed by team members in multiple locations, the concept of working with people you may only know by telephone and e-mail is here to stay.

The cost benefits of virtual teams are well documented, but how many companies invest in the guidelines and processes to enable these work units to be successful?

Having facilitated numerous strategy and team-building sessions with globally diverse senior teams, I’ve found that even teams that are co-located often have difficulty attaining and maintaining high-performing status. The challenges for virtual teams are significantly higher. Following are some suggestions to improve the effectiveness of virtual teams:

1. If possible, hold a face-to-face kick off session where teams discuss the goals, tasks and roles of team members. This may seem costly, but the investment will speed the ability of the team to establish professional and personal bonds … and build trust. The session should be professionally facilitated so the team can keep on task and leave with clarity of roles and purpose.

2. Establish ground rules for behavior. This is especially important for remote teams. Discuss expectations like: keeping commitments, honesty, timely responses, being fully present at teleconferences, raising potential problems, and forewarning team members of absences.

3. Talk about cultural awareness. Most of us still have a lot to learn about working effectively cross-culturally. Key points to discuss among team members include working styles, communication styles, assumptions, and understanding. Plan for taking the time to really listen and understand each other. Pay particular attention to how different cultural styles handle agreements -- make sure you are clear on what your conversation really means. Some cultures say “yes” when they mean they “understand,” but are not committed. Consider ending each discussion with a review to clarify what was just discussed. For teams that are new to this, consider a session on cultural sensitivity training.

4. Take time zones into account. Think about the impact of scheduling and make sure you consciously discuss and plan for mutual work times. In addition to routine teleconferencing and videoconferencing, you must have dialogue in between scheduled sessions. Planning the guidelines for these ad hoc conversations is important -- you will need to make commitments on mobile phones and “awake hours.” Respect each other’s time and rotate schedules to ensure everyone bears the brunt of the time differences.

5. Build social rapport. Sharing a team picture, weekend plans and personal anecdotes all are common for co-located teams … but often forgotten in virtual situations. It is important to be a personal, as well as a professional, team member.

6. Discuss conflicts before they happen. Identify potential areas for misunderstanding and define actions steps to minimize or eliminate issues.

7. Assess your individual comfort zone with respect to uncertainty and complexity. With the time pressures all of us face, juggling unanticipated issues can be a challenge, to say the least. Make it a personal goal to enhance your flexibility and patience.

8. Acknowledge contributions and celebrate milestones. It is too easy for team members to begin to feel invisible and unrecognized. Make sure you have a plan to keep team members visible to each other and the larger organization.

9. Consider service-level agreements between all parties. As a group, set expectations and measures of success, and plan for reviews to troubleshoot and resolve issues.

10. Consider getting a coach for the team leader. The technical process complexities and deliverables often take precedence over the pure leadership needs of virtual teams. Often a coach can significantly increase the speed to productivity and success of virtual teams.

The key to making virtual teams work can be summed up in a single word -- trust. Team members need to develop trust in one another. It’s the glue that holds them together. The more you can build trust by following these steps, the more likely your virtual team will succeed.

Carolyn Ott is a member of WJM Associates’ executive and organizational effectiveness coaching faculty.

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