As companies search for more productive and more cost effective ways of getting work accomplished, there has been an explosion of virtual work and project teams. As a result, it has become imperative for people to learn how to work together across boundaries of space, time, and yes, cultures. Driven by the need to leverage expertise located in different parts of the organization, companies are increasingly reliant on geographically dispersed virtual teams to plan, make decisions, and take action on critical business issues.
When such teams function at optimal levels of productivity and efficiency, they are actually a source of competitive advantage for their companies, bringing together a variety of different perspectives and experiences that have high value for innovation and problem solving. On the other hand, teams working remotely face unique challenges in communicating and collaborating efficiently and productively. Research conducted by Wilson Learning a few years ago highlights this problem. Our research showed that the most productive teams are those with a high level of diversity and high levels of communication skills. However, if the communication skills are lacking, the highly diverse teams are the lowest performing teams. Thus effective teamwork and communication skills for virtual teams are even more important than for other teams. You can’t walk down the hall or into the next cubicle to discuss a problem if some people are in New York and others are in Santa Cruz or even Bangladore. As a result, without critical skill sets, virtual teams will fail to fully engage team members, establish clear goals and standards, and establish the processes necessary to get things done.
Here is a “Top Ten” list of strategies that will help your virtual teams perform at the highest possible level and take full advantage of members’ varying skills, knowledge, and capabilities.
TIP 1: BUILD TRUST AND RAPPORT
Team performance depends on a foundation of trust. Without it, team members are reluctant to share information, offer support, and may hesitate to rely on others to keep commitments and follow through on tasks.
To build a sense of trust, virtual teams need opportunities to develop social rapport, especially in the early stages of the team’s work. Creating time for team members to identify common values, establish credibility, and foster a sense of trust is critical for virtual teams. For example, we have seen virtual teams engage in online games together as a way to establish relationships and occasionally hold meetings in “immersive” virtual environments such as Second Life, as a way to establish and build trust. The use of social media such as LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook can also be useful to help team members become familiar with one another in a way that fosters trust and confidence.
TIP 2: CREATE A STRONG TEAM IDENTITY
Even more than co-located teams, virtual teams need a sense of “teamness” based on a strong belief in a shared purpose, common inspiration, and commitment to the team’s goals. In a dispersed team, there may be individuals who are working alone out of a home office or who are otherwise the only member of the team at their location. Under these circumstances, it is easy for them to feel isolated, not part of the team, and “out of the loop.”
The team’s cohesiveness will be greatly enhanced if their purpose and goals are clear and they have frequent reminders of why they are together and what they are working toward. Managers can also help build team identity by providing recognition for team and individual achievements and opportunities for team sharing and celebrating successes.
TIP 3: DEVELOP COMMUNICATIONS TECHNOLOGY KNOW-HOW AND SUPPORT
Used correctly, contemporary communications tools can be powerful and effective—offering interactive, engaging ways to share information and stay in touch. Managers of virtual teams need to become familiar with three principle technologies. First, there are online meeting sites (such as GoToMeeting or WebEx) that allow virtual team members to do real face-to-face meetings online. Second, there are online project management sites (such as SharePoint or LiveLink) which allow virtual team members to share and store documents, plans, reports, etc. Third, there are emerging technologies, such as Google Wave, which allows multiple people to work together on presentations and documents simultaneously.
To gain all these benefits, however, team members must be reasonably skilled and comfortable in using the tools, and the technology needs to be readily available and reliable. All team members should have opportunities for training and hands-on practice, and have access to technical support whenever they need help. If there are technophobes in the group, practice and feedback from an experienced mentor will help them develop a greater level of confidence and comfort in using the technology and increasing their efficiency and productivity.
TIP 4: ENGAGE IN SHARED RESPONSIBILITY, CLEAR ACCOUNTABILITY, AND TEAM CELEBRATIONS
Like any other team, virtual teams must develop a feeling that all team members bear equal responsibility for achieving the team’s goals and have clear expectations for accountability for their individual tasks. While this will often come naturally for traditional teams, virtual teams need tools for tracking individual and team accomplishments. Of equal importance are periodic opportunities to celebrate and be recognized for team achievements. Non-virtual teams will often do this informally, in hallway meetings for example, but virtual teams have to build this into their scheduled activities.
TIP 5: ENSURE STRONG TEAM LEADERSHIP
Team members in a virtual team—more than in other teams—need to be able to exercise effective self-leadership, taking responsibility for completing individual work and participating in all activities of the team. Nonetheless, an experienced team leader can be a critical resource in helping the team stay on track and serve as a liaison with the team’s sponsors. This leader can anticipate the challenges of working virtually and help make sure communications are clear and that all members of the team are fully “in the loop” and participating as they should be in team meetings.
TIP 6: PUT TASK-RELATED PROCESSES IN PLACE
Research from the Sloan School of Management demonstrates that virtual teams using well developed task-related processes to increase work coordination and task-related communication tend to outperform those that do not. Processes for tasks such as setting goals, making plans, solving problems, assigning specific work roles, and measuring results help the team function efficiently and effectively.
This can be especially important for crosscultural virtual teams. Different cultures have different expectations concerning processes and procedures. Therefore, it is important that global virtual teams clearly communicate the process being followed and provide training and assistance when team members are new to the process.
TIP 7: BUILD SOCIAL/COMMUNICATIONS SKILLS
Social interactions are the glue that holds the team together as a cohesive unit. Although task-oriented processes are essential to the team’s effectiveness, members of a virtual team need to be highly competent in managing the give and take necessary to exchange information, provide mutual support, and make course corrections when necessary.
When non-virtual teams meet, it is very common that the five to ten minutes before or after the meeting is spent in casual, non-work related conversations that build social relationships in the team. However, this is much rarer in virtual teams. Effective virtual team leaders understand that it is important to build this time into the process, helping team members understand and appreciate diversity in interpersonal style, model versatility in adapting to others’ preferred communications styles, and know how to give and receive feedback. Team leaders and managers should make sure team members have these capabilities and, where needed, help the team build on and enhance their communications skills.
TIP 8: ESTABLISH PROCESSES FOR MAKING GROUP DECISIONS
Every team needs the ability to make decisions and reach agreement as a group. For a virtual team, this is even more critical, as the members may not necessarily share any established common practices and may have very different experiences with decision making. Team members need to understand the different ways that decisions can be made and know how to reach agreements on issues, such as the right solution to a problem and how to break down a task and assign work. An established team decision-making process and tools will help the team avoid getting stuck when a decision needs to be made, and ensure that the decisions made are high quality and represent the best thinking of the entire team. Not every decision is made in the same way; it is important to communicate which decisions are collaborative versus which decisions are leader driven.
TIP 9: CREATE GLOBAL AWARENESS
Increasingly, virtual teams are dispersed not only across geographical boundaries within the U.S.A. or North America, but across international boundaries that span the globe. A lack of global awareness and cultural sensitivity can undermine almost every other aspect of the team’s work, making it difficult to establish trust, make decisions, and carry out tasks in a coordinated, efficient way.
To work productively and cohesively across cultural boundaries requires that team members have some insights into the cultural dimensions that can affect interpersonal behaviors and preferences. This might include awareness of differences in how various cultures perceive business relationships, view power and authority within business organizations, and value the role of the individual versus the community or group.
Team leaders and managers can help by paying special attention to how the team is interacting and providing opportunities for team members to discuss and resolve issues related to different cultural assumptions or values.
TIP 10: BUILD CONFLICT RESOLUTION SKILLS
Regardless of how well the team organizes its work or how well team members communicate, there is a high probability for occasional conflicts, either between individual team members or across the entire group. Conflicts within a virtual team can seem even more intractable and disruptive than they do when people are able to sit down and talk through the issues.
Virtual teams present special concerns regarding conflict. Because much of the communication is through e-mail or over webcast meetings where body language is missing, there is greater chance that information or intention will be misunderstood. We have known cases when a team member wrote an e-mail with the expectation that it would be received positively, only to have other team members see it as negative and potentially offensive.
To make sure conflicts can be recognized early and addressed proactively, team members need to understand what kinds of issues can lead to conflicts and recognize how unresolved conflict can get in the way of achieving their goals. They also need to know how to separate the issues from the people and reach a solution without letting emotional responses become a barrier to mutually agreeable resolutions.
Whether your virtual team is dedicated to customer service or R&D, or whether it is dispersed across the globe or only across a single state, these ten tips can enhance productivity, team member satisfaction, and effectiveness. Even a team that is working remotely out of necessity rather than choice can become a powerful asset if the group has the tools, technology, and skills required to bring their varied experience and knowledge together to achieve outstanding results. By Michael Leimbach, Ph.D., Wilson Learning Worldwide, and Carl Eidson, Ph.D., Wilson Learning Corporation