The 3 Secrets to Building High-Performance, Virtual Teams

by Steve Garcia and Paul Black, April 07th 2014  

As the world becomes more interconnected and the pace of change accelerates it becomes harder to find any one employee who by himself or herself creates an end product or service. In contrast, teams - small groups working together towards a common goal - have become the basic unit of performance in organizations.

The rise of teams has brought with it the need to establish and lead virtual teams, defined as "groups of individuals who work across time, space and organizational boundaries and who interact primarily through electronic communications." According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), nearly half of all organizations use virtual teams. This isn't surprising given that virtual teams allow organization to:

Leverage the best talent regardless of location.
Stay physically close to customers and suppliers; and
Increase access to new, different points of view.

Virtual teams, however, introduce a number of unique challenges. It's difficult enough getting a team to work well together when team members are all face to face (just watch a Group Night episode of American Idol). When team members are in different time zones, separated by geography and accustomed to different cultural norms, it gets much harder. Research by Professor Hayward Andres at the Portland State University indicates that virtual team productivity and satisfaction is significantly lower than that of face-to-face teams. Figure 1 uses a model of team performance to highlight why virtual teams often struggle.

Figure 1: Virtual Team Challenges

In our experience, the best virtual teams overcome these challenges by focusing on the team itself and not just on achieving the team's goals. High-performing virtual teams do this in three different ways.

1. Assume Nothing and Spell Out Everything

Too often virtual team members are focused on different agendas. This isn't because they don't want to be a good team member. It's because the lack of interaction between the team makes it harder to know what other team members are trying to accomplish. In absence of a common understanding, virtual team members revert back to what's important to them and make the false assumption that this is also what's important to their teammates. We have found that the best virtual teams assume nothing and spell out everything. They establish a team charter from the start that explains the team's mission and goals, clearly defines who will do what, defines success metrics, and identifies team norms, such as assume positive intent or no multitasking during virtual meetings. Moreover, high-performing virtual teams hold members accountable to the charter and revisit the charter periodically to make certain it is still relevant.

2. Build Trust by Increasing Social Interaction

It's hard to play laser tag when you're hundreds of miles apart from each other. That said, the best virtual teams build trust and cohesion by increasing social interaction. For example, high-performing virtual teams dedicate time for non work-related "chit chat," or social discussions, when they do meet virtually. This might entail celebrating a recent milestone or even asking team members to share a recent personal event. And, while virtual teams may not be able to go bowling together, they can engage in a host of virtual games such as Mindcraft or World of Warcraft.

3. Establish Formal Communication Protocols and then Over Communicate

Finally, high-performing virtual teams conquer time and distance by establishing formal communication protocols and then over communicating. For example, virtual teams may choose to publish agendas in advance, share pre-reads prior to the meeting, and publish minutes with key decision and action items. Moreover, many of the best virtual teams leverage a meeting facilitator who owns meeting effectiveness. The facilitator's role is to keep the meeting on track, encourage participation, and emphasize agreed-on ground rules. This facilitator can be an external resource or a member of the virtual team, perhaps on a rotating basis.

Successful virtual teams also leverage visual communication mediums, such as video conferencing or even webcasting, as opposed to simply audio technology. Visual mediums, even if they only offer screen sharing, are more engaging than a conference call by itself. Virtual teams who have access to video conferencing solutions can benefit from the richness of non-verbal cues, which by some measures represents 55% of all communication.

As organizations establish matrix structures, collaborate across silos, and outsource functions the number of virtual teams will continue to grow. Implement the three secrets to high-performing virtual teams to make certain your virtual teams produce real results.

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