First let’s talk about “Virtual Teams” as some people do not know what the term means. Basically, Virtual Teams are people that work together on various projects, but are located in different physical locations. This concept of people collaborating from various locations is one that is on the rise and has become easier as internet and telecommunication technology advances. These dispersed teams rely on shared work spaces, public WiFi, libraries and other places that they can connect to the Internet and communicate with their coworkers. Basically, they can work from almost anywhere and still be able to interact with other team members.
We don’t need discuss the appeal of this type of work environment for employees, or their satisfaction in working in a flexible environment that speaks for itself. Most remote workers will tell you that they are happy to work alone, but they are most happy when they are collaborating online with other team members. It is not just text messages and group chats; they also get involved in teleconferences and video conferences with other members of the team. For the business that is running a virtual team, there can be substantial cost savings of not having to have a physical space for all their workers. But their is also the fact that the best team members might not be in the same city or even the same country. Having an international team of the best people is what makes them successful.
The fact is that getting the right virtual team might not be as easy as it sounds. In 2005 Deloitte consulting did a study of IT projects outsourced to virtual work groups found that 66% failed to satisfy the clients’ requirements. This can be a problem if the team is not working cohesively. Yet in 2009, a study of 80 global software teams by researchers from BCG and WHU-Otto Beisheim School of Management indicates that well-managed, dispersed teams can actually outperform those that share physical office space. Similarly, an Aon Consulting report noted that using virtual teams can improve employee productivity. Some organizations have seen gains of up to 43%. So this says virtual teams can work – they just need to have the right people and the right management.
Now you are wondering just how to create an effective and productive virtual team. You can find a great deal of advice from those who have succeeded and those who have failed at it. But what it really comes down to is, did they have the right team? Sometimes you can have the right team, but not have the right management and leadership to drive that team. It can also depend on having the right technology available to the team to maximize its productivity.
So what is “the right team?”
Your team composition should be your starting point. Without the right team you are doomed to fail at having a virtual team. You cannot get anywhere without hiring people suited to virtual teamwork (or those you can develop into the role). It is about putting them into groups of the proper size, and dividing the labour appropriately based on their individual skill set. It is often found that successful virtual team players have a few things in common with other virtual team players. They have good communication skills, high intelligence, the ability to work productively and independently, and the resilience to recover from the problems that inevitably arise from random problems.
Other factors that go into a good virtual team member is their awareness of and sensitivity to other cultures has a large importance when dealing with global work groups. When building a team, business owners and team leaders should conduct behavioral interviews and personality tests to screen for all those key personality qualities.
What is the ideal size of a virtual team? Some people say that keeping several teams of less than 10 members can be more productive, because the team itself keeps other members accountable. This makes sense because in a smaller team, team members can call out those in the team who are not pulling their weight and just loafing along to collect a paycheque.
Like any group scenarios, roles need to be established. Leaders of each team must have solid leadership qualities, while understanding the roles of each team member. The role of the leader is not only to lead the team and keep it on task, but to communicate with other team leaders to make sure that what their team is doing is consistent with the goals of other teams. The most important aspect of building a successful virtual team is having trust between team member and those who lead the team. It is important to note that trust starts with respect and empathy; but trust is built as the team is developing. Trust is earned and not just given.
If you really want a productive virtual team, you need to have and encourage open dialogue with not only team members, but with management as well. This alone can be the reason why a team succeeds or fails. You need to not only communicate, but you also need to recognize people for practices that improve team communication and collaboration. This tells them that you are noticing what they bring to the team.
Some final ideas for you to consider. Discourage multi-tasking, especially during team meetings. Have everyone turn off their phones and close non-relevant browser windows. Virtual collaboration requires that everyone be mentally engaged, not searching for their next point they want to make in the meeting. Explain your policy, and when the group has a virtual meeting and regularly calls on individuals to share their thoughts, ensure that they are engaged with the meeting topic at hand. Plan regular face-to-face team events and meetings. The best way to make a team work well is to have them know other members personally. If you do not have your own boardrooms or meeting rooms, consider renting a daily meeting room or conference room for all of your team for a seminar or training session.
Keep it fun! When you do bring your team in for an in-person meeting, be sure to have some enjoyment and team-building exercises built into your plans. The more your team knows each other, the better they will work together and deliver the results that you require. These types of events are even more important when you are bringing a new team member on board. You want them to be part of the team and you want the team to accept them as one of their own.
Do not forget milestones of the business and team; but also do not forget individual successes and milestones. E-mail updates and weekly conference calls are not enough to sustain virtual team momentum. You need to engage virtual team members in celebrating the milestones of their team and of their members’ achievements. These do not need to be long-term achievements. They can also be team goals that have taken the team to the next level.