A Summary of Issues and Best Practices for Effective Virtual Teams
When teams must communicate and operate from various locations, the following issues and practices are helpful to improve team effectiveness. This is particularly true in global matrix organizations.
Virtual Teams Challenges and Opportunities
Clarity of purpose and role clarity are the predictors of success of virtual teams. Group participation in achieving this is extremely important to compensate for lost context. Managing a virtual team requires a deeper understanding of people, process, and technology, and recognition that trust is a more limiting factor compared with face-to-face interactions. In other words, the lack of trust has a greater impact. Cultural differences, and the corresponding assumptions made, are often accentuated or magnified in a virtual context.
Virtual teams allow organizations to pool knowledge workers quickly from different functions and locations, leveraging virtual teams as a factor of competitive advantage. The tools, methods, and approaches they use to do so are critical for success.
Challenges of a Virtual Team
Teams must overcome obstacles associated with time, distance, organization and culture. Without face-to-face communication, cues from facial expressions and gestures are lost. This can generate feelings of isolation and undermine trust, especially when members are from different cultures. Trust is important in coping with complexity and uncertainty. It is a relationship of reliance, and the highest form of human motivation. It is the springboard of high performance teams. (Indeed, the words trust and team are nearly synonymous.) Trust leads to mutual motivation, enhanced unity and increased effectiveness and efficiency.
•Room for misinterpretation – Since interaction is done in a virtual work environment, it is harder to express and read emotions accurately. Emotions and expressions that we usually read well during face-to-face interactions are not as easily read through messaging, email or phone conversations.
•Visually representing thoughts and ideas – Gathering people in front of a whiteboard is one of the most efficient methods of brainstorming and communicating ideas. With no (or limited) face-to-face conversations, we have to rely on online programs or tools, and sometimes, these limit the visual presentations that an excited team member may have regarding a project plan or idea.
•Team members may not be as transparent – Team members may not readily level with the other members regarding their project issues or difficulties. Granted, this is also a problem with physical offices, but it’s easier to hide when your interaction with others is limited to online tools.
•Time zone management – This is almost a given. While working in different time zones allows you to work around the clock, having people spread across multiple time zones also poses a scheduling challenge. Frustration and confusion can ensue, especially if coworkers are regularly unavailable for discussion or clarification of task-related issues. (Sloan)
•Fewer opportunities to bond away from work – Team rapport is harder to build when there is no option for the members to get together casually when the workday ends. Activities that build camaraderie, such as break time conversations or meal breaks that serve as bonding time, are not available to virtual teams.
•Over-communication becomes a work standard – In the virtual environment, it is better to communicate, clarify, and confirm everything to ensure that all members have the same understanding about the task at hand. This produces a ton of paperwork and files that could quickly fill your archives.
Critical Factors in Success of Virtual Teams
Seven critical success factors can be identified, each calling for dedicated organizational policies, strategies, and partnerships, including their design, implementation, results, and associated business processes:
- Human resource management: Building and maintaining virtual employee identity requires unique human resource management for virtual knowledge workers, dealing with unique issues, such as visibility in the organization, career options, and paths to advancement. Virtual staff need to feel they are on a par with other workers in the organization and that their different personal and work circumstances are understood. Human resource management must overcome the perceived natural advantage of in-house employees, with possible implications for organizational design. Lack of a sense of belonging can show up in human resource indicators, such as low morale, engagement scores and retention.
- Learning and development: Modern organizations must commit to, and make resources available for, training and other ongoing learning development activities focused on working in a virtual environment. They must also educate all employees, not just virtual employees, in virtual team culture.
- Organizational culture: Leadership and organizational commitment must recognize that virtual teaming is fast becoming a preferred way of working. Recognition entails promoting virtual teaming and rewarding and recognizing team members who lead and participate in virtual teams.
- Information management systems: New management, measurement, and control systems must be designed. Work assignments must be made available more widely so that data and information gathered in one place for one purpose can be used in another for other purposes. Workload tracking and management systems must span all the work performed both in and out of a department.
- Electronic communication and collaboration technologies: For virtual teams to work effectively, members from all geographic and functional areas need access to a standard set of electronic communication and collaboration technologies. Using technology, such as Skype, Instant Messenger, Online Services, as well as Social Media to communicate and build team spirit are critical.
- Leadership: Senior leadership must recognize that virtual teaming is fast becoming a preferred (and useful) way of working. Cross-functional management teams must be established to handle and resolve the complex, cross-functional, and virtual issues that virtual teams deal with. Management system flaws in decision making must be resolved if virtual projects are to succeed.
- Team leader and team member competencies: Team leaders must see themselves as critical to facilitating the team’s successes; bringing the team closer together and building the interpersonal relations its members need to succeed. Team members must be proficient in the use of interactive technologies—working across time, distance, organization, and culture with sensitivity project and time parameters—and able to network.
Leading and Managing Virtual Teams
Emphasize teamwork skills. When staffing teams, organizations must consider a candidate’s social skills – a major prerequisite for good teamwork –as well as expertise and availability. Individuals from different locations don’t automatically know how to collaborate in a virtual environment. Dispersed teams are dependent on their level of teamwork, specifically, their ability to perform key processes, such as mutual support, communication and coordination. Thus, managers need to consider teamwork skills as a necessary attribute when selecting the members of a virtual team.
Promote self-leadership across the team. Beyond social skills, managers need to ensure that dispersed teams have broad-based leadership capabilities. When a group is closely co-located, an individual leader can more easily detect any deficiencies in teamwork and address them with a hands-on managerial style. For example, an interpersonal conflict might be resolved by talking in person with the different parties in an informal setting. Such an approach is largely nonexistent in virtual teams. Geographic dispersion and cultural diversity make it difficult for any individual leader to ensure the team is functioning effectively. Even though the advanced use of the latest information and communications technologies can help, they is no magical panacea for managing people across countries and time zones. “We are often not able to overcome the cultural problems,” admits one team leader. And only very experienced team leaders can handle these challenges and lead these teams to success.”
For a virtual team to succeed, members generally need to be aware of the difficulties of dispersed collaboration and find effective ways to overcome those obstacles on their own. This highlights the need for people to be more self-sufficient in how they manage their own work because the team leader is less in a position to help. Consequently, companies that are serious about virtual collaboration must target their HR efforts not only at designated team leaders, but also at team members, so those individuals can develop the skills necessary to work in a virtual setting.
Provide for periodic face-to-face meetings. Periodic face-to-face meetings of dispersed team members can be particularly effective for initiating and maintaining key social processes that will encourage informal communication, team identification and cohesion.
The time and expense necessary to provide such opportunities for face-to-face interactions then become an investment that can lead to large returns if the virtual team is able to take full advantage of its diverse expertise and heterogeneity. Companies should also remember that informal interactions can be just as important as formal ones – if not more so.
Foster a “global culture.” Research suggests that a global mind-set, in which people see themselves as part of an international network, helps provide an environment that is conducive to dispersed teams. Various human resource strategies can help foster that mind-set, including temporary staff assignments at foreign locations and inter-cultural training.
Use technology to help the team stay connected. Through Skype, instant messenger, Facebook, Zoom and other technology, the team can stay connected, and even build relationships that will help facilitate the socio-emotional aspects of the team.
While conventional wisdom suggests that the team performance suffers with increasing levels of dispersion, research shows that virtual teams can outperform their co-located counterparts when they are set up and managed in the right way. The company needs to ensure that the group has the necessary socio-emotional and task-related processes in place. Then virtual teams can effectively integrate dispersed knowledge to take advantage of their cultural and structural diversity.
Key questions for virtual teambuilding:
- How do remoteness and time pressure change group and leadership behaviors?
- What is the right balance of focusing on task and or team?
- What is the right balance of control and autonomy in the way we work together?
- What causes divided loyalties and what can we do about them?
- When do we need to be a team anyway?
- When to communicate and how often is enough?
- How to manage our team when the travel budget is limited?
- When to get face-to-face?
- How to stay visible when remote?
- How do we identify and resolve conflict?
Guidelines and Resources for Leading and Managing Virtual Teams
- If you don’t normally prepare for, or facilitate, meetings well in person, then you are not going to do it well virtually! Virtual team building and management require the same, plus more, of what is needed in person. So get it right in person and then build on that experience. Be prepared. Send out an agenda ahead of time and set expectations at the start of the call.
- Don’t be anxious when it takes a few minutes to get a meeting/call up and running. Worst case it takes 20 minutes. Keep people talking while you are waiting for others to join. Work on the basis that it will work. If it goes longer than 20 minutes, drop the call and reschedule and encourage everyone to be better prepared.
- Become comfortable with the technology you are using (Skype, Zoom). Remember the technology is a means to an end. Just because you are doing something over Skype, does not mean it is being done well. The use of the technology does not replace basic principles and practices for preparing for and facilitating meetings.
- Use a camera with Skype or Zoom when it is a one-on-one meeting. This makes people aware that you are really there. You can always turn it off if the bandwidth is poor.
- Don’t hesitate to drop a call and restart it if the sound quality is poor. Don’t hesitate to ask everybody to mute his or her phone if there is a lot of noise.
- It is generally best to keep virtual, online meetings to 45 to 60 minutes.
Virtual Team Building and Management
- The same things that are needed to build and manage a team effectively in person are the same things needed (plus more) to build and manage them virtually. If you have not been effective in building or managing your team in person, you are not likely to do so virtually.
- .For virtual teams having a clear mandate: Having a value proposition for why the team is working together and what it is trying to achieve with measurable goals is critical.
- What is your team’s value proposition?
- Why do you exist as a team?
- What are you seeking to achieve?
- What ground rules and/or protocols will you abide by?
If you have not already, answer the questions above as part of establishing your norms for how you will operate as a virtual team. Consider establishing a team operating agreement TOA as a guide for establishing team norms as well as the checklist for effective team functioning.
Clarify individual roles and responsibilities
- Create a relationship map
- Have teams share daily schedules
- Create a contact director and ensure each team member has the other’s relevant contact information, such as Skype, Zoom, mobile numbers, etc.
Consider a “social agreement” protocol as a virtual team
- Principles while online regarding multi-tasking, etc.
- Giving full attention
- Facilitating or taking turns hosting •How to hold each other accountable
Assume nothing -spell out everything. Given culture, personality and different expectations, test your assumptions about everything.
- How will the team communicate, make decisions, reach conclusions, handle conflict, etc.?
- Clarify definitions and give examples for critical terms and concepts, i.e., what do we mean by quality?
Mega communicate. The first three answers to the question, “What makes for effective virtual teams?” is communication, communication and more communication. For introverts, that will be a challenge. When you think you have communicated a lot, the extroverts will feel have not even started!
- Use various types of communication to meet differing personality type’s communication needs, such as in writing, verbal, by video, one-on-one, in groups, etc.
- Communicate often and regularly, with a consistent approach that includes some spontaneity & flexibility!
- Encourage team members to stay in touch with each other through variousmeans.
Be intentional about getting to know each other, building and maintaining relationships
- What is your team’s “Facebook” strategy? ate a team “home page” on face book or an internal platform to share personal data, photos, personal and family events to celebrate and pray for etc.
- Have people share responses to “getting to know each other” questions, such as, “What is your most valuable learning experience?” “What 3 words best describe you?”
- Create and share brief bios.
- Let your creative, relational team members come up with ideas.
- Create a relationship map.
- Create a team Blog for follow-up for more in-depth sharing or reflection.
- Familiarity breeds trust. People who trust each other are to be more productive.
- Create symbols that can represent team members and provide opportunities to share how and why. Use these as a reference in meetings.
Learn to listen for and recognize conflict and stress–and manage it. Remember, people with differing Type profiles will respond to and handle stress or conflict in different ways.
Action learning. If there is an area where action learning is needed, this is it. Learn as you go. Be willing to try and fail. Set up a feedback loop so that, after each virtual meeting, you receive immediate feedback on what could have been done differently or better.
Use your MBTI Type understanding for how to communicate with and engage people.
Did you remember to give those with a preference for Extraversion. . .
- a chance to develop ideas through discussion?
- lots of spontaneous, verbal information and/or feedback?
- active participation in the process?
- opportunities to interact with people?
Did you remember to give those with a preference for Introversion. . .
- time to reflect and develop ideas internally before responding?
- careful, written information and/or feedback?
- the opportunity to work or reflect alone in a quiet atmosphere?
Did you remember to give those with a preference for Sensing. . .
- step-by-step information and explanations?
- concrete examples and practical applications?
- appreciation/positive feedback for their carefulness and thoroughness?
- enough specific and realistic data?
Did you remember to give those with a preference for Intuition. . .
- a chance to do it their own way, to add their creativity?
- the big picture, a framework?
- appreciation/feedback for their leaps outside of boundaries, for their “impractical” ideas?
- a chance to play around with the pieces, to create different routes?
Did you remember to give those with a preference for Thinking. . .
- logical reasons for everything?
- a chance to ask “why” questions?
- a chance for achievement and acknowledgment?
- opportunities to wrestle with problems?
- a sense of fairness in rules and procedures?
Did you remember to give those with a preference for Feeling. . .
- lots of approval and positive feedback?
- a chance to see how facts and ideas relate to people?
- individual recognition?• opportunities to connect, to focus on relationships?
- a chance to identify and act on values and personal priorities?
Did you remember to give those with a preference for Judging. . .
- clear goals, schedules, time-lines, and structures?
- a chance to organize and plan projects?
- a sense of completion and closure?
- appreciation for their clarity and decisiveness?
Did you remember to give those with a preference for Perceiving. . .
- a chance to be spontaneous and flexible?
- a chance to add new relevant information?
- rewards for working –the process–as well as results?
- appreciation for seeing things that a focus on completion may miss?
References and Additional Resources for Consideration
- Key resource for managing global cross-cultural teams. www.global-integration.com
- Tips for dealing with tough issues virtually and other resource articles: http://www.guidedinsights.com/tackling-tough-issues-remotely-when-your-boss-is-the-problem/; http://www.guidedinsights.com/services/virtual-teams-training-facilitation-and-coaching/
- Tips on managing virtual teams http://sloanreview.mit.edu/the-magazine/2009-summer/50412/how-to-manage-virtual-teams.
- Managing teams best practices: http://blog.fastfedora.com/2011/10/virtual-teams-pros-cons-best-practices.html.
- 25 virtual teams apps: https://gigaom.com/2011/05/04/25-apps-for-the-virtual-workers-toolkit/
- Use of technology: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/working-virtual-team.htm
- Virtual team building hand book: http://ceit.aut.ac.ir/~sa_hashemi/My%20Teachings/MS-VAUT-Managing%20Virtual%20Teams/5.Books%20&%20Refferences/1-HandBook%20of%20virtual%20teams.PDF/ http://www.amazon.com/Handbook-High-Performance-Virtual-Teams/dp/0470176423
- Virtual team tool kits: http://empoweringleaders.com/blog/virtualtoolkit/http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1010&context=gsbpapers
- Virtual team management library of resources: http://managementhelp.org/groups/virtual/toolkit.htm
- Free vast library on team building, OD, LD, learning resources, exercises, tools, etc.: http://www.businessballs.com/teambuildinggames.htmor http://www.businessballs.com
- HBR on getting virtual team right: https://hbr.org/2014/12/getting-virtual-teams-right
- HBR, ten basic principles for making virtual teams work: https://hbr.org/2013/06/making-virtual-teams-work-ten
- Managing Virtual Teams: https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2F978-981-10-0983-9_68.pdf
Dr. Sam Voorhies, the Center’s Director, has been president and CEO of Voorhies International Consulting since 2010. He taught numerous courses at seminaries and universities around the world from 1990 to 2017.