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How to Coax Real Gains From Virtual Teams

When team members are widely dispersed, pay special attention to building trust and keeping colleagues motivated and in the loop

How to Coax Real Gains From Virtual Teams

Virtual teams are increasingly popular as organizations attempt to rein in costs and bring together diverse disciplines, functions, and cultures within their own ranks. Virtual teams make good use of the distributed human resources within organizations. In fact, for some projects, having a virtual team may be the only way to move forward.

But there are special challenges to building a team of dispersed individuals, says Shawna O’Grady, associate professor at Queen’s School of Business. In this interview with QSB Insight, O’Grady discusses the key factors that need to be considered when forming a virtual team.

For Virtual Teams, Start With Old-Fashioned Face Time

A virtual team is like any team with two other features. One, at least some of its members are geographically or organizationally dispersed. And two, they rely primarily on technology to complete their tasks.  

Let’s go back to what a team is: it’s a small set of people coming together, committed to a common purpose and working approach and holding each other accountable. That doesn’t change with virtual teams. With the proper setup, leadership, and organizational support, virtual teams should be just as effective as in-person teams. Unfortunately, they’re often not set up properly.

The number one mistake that organizations make with virtual teams is to not get team members together for a face-to-face trust-building session and to establish expectations, operating norms, and procedures. If that doesn’t happen at the beginning, you run into major problems down the line. 

Successful virtual teams continually build in face time to bond as a team. They also take advantage of team member diversity. With Queen’s MBA programs, for example, we have our teams complete a skills inventory where team members identify their unique set of skills. That’s posted in a virtual workspace, and they can continue to build off that to take advantage of team member diversity throughout the time they’re working together on projects. It needs to be documented and made explicit, more than you would need to do for an in-person team.

Team Leaders Cannot Afford to Sit Back

Leaders of virtual teams need all the same skills as for conventional teams but they’re probably more complex because, first of all, not everyone knows how to build a virtual team. They have to understand the specific issues that make virtual teams successful.  The leaders have to be able to guide the team through establishing trust and respect in a face-to-face when the team is first formed. 

They also have to ensure the team continues to form socially as they interact through technology. It’s hard to observe people in these settings. So it’s much more about monitoring individuals doing the types of things they need to do: making sure they’re good performance managers; ensuring norms around information and communication are really clear; and keeping team energy and motivation high.

With virtual teams, it can be an issue of “out of sight, out of mind.” Not everyone has the ability to maintain their motivation when they’re not around other people. So, as a leader, you’re not sure if people are as prepared as they should be. The virtual team leader has to be a lot more proactive in coaching individual members, reminding them why the project is important and what they need to do. 

We shouldn’t forget, though, that there needs to be an organizational culture that supports virtual teams and provides the technology and training of team members and leaders. If the culture supports virtual teams, then individuals would be more likely support the behaviours necessary to make them work. 

Untangling Communication Patterns of Virtual Teams

One of the things that happens when any team gets together is that members size up one another. They make assumptions. Sometimes, even when they just hear the name of another person on the team, they begin to form assumptions that are often wrong. The misperceptions can be corrected over time as you get to know people better. But in virtual teams, we don’t get that opportunity, so frequently the errors go uncorrected. They have less knowledge about other team members because communication is usually less personal and there are fewer non-verbal cues. 

In face-to-face meetings, if I’m speaking, you generally have to wait for me to finish before you can get in — it’s one person at a time. In a virtual team, I can reflect on what I’ve received from you before I actually have to comment on it. Some people prefer that, and say that virtual teams produce faster, more task-oriented work because people can work in parallel and there are fewer social aspects.

But others believe that the social and communication aspects inherent in virtual teams can produce more conflict, lower communication frequency, and less actual sharing of information, less collaboration. 

Why Virtual Teams Are Getting Mixed Results

There was some great research done by a couple of my colleagues at Queen’s School of Business, Jane Webster and Sandy Staples. They conducted a meta-analysis to try and figure out the consequences of virtualness on team functioning. They found that although generally there are negative effects in terms of lower communication frequency and knowledge sharing, the effect became a lot weaker the longer the teams were together.

Here at Queen’s, within our Executive MBA program, I’ve done two quantitative measurements on team satisfaction. I found that our virtual teams have been as satisfied or, in one program, more satisfied than even our in-person teams. They’ve had great experiences. 

Organizations are moving to virtual teams without understanding that more needs to be done in a documented and structured way. Few are getting it right, so we’re generally not seeing great performance results. If we do those other things, we can get equal or maybe even better results in some cases where they function effectively.

It really does come down to the fact that these teams can be successful with the right culture, the right team leader, and the proper setup. The good news for organizations and their leaders is that if virtual teams are set up and managed properly, they have a lot of potential. 

Interview by Alan Morantz