Virtual teams are more prevalent than ever. But the fact that virtual teams continue to grow in popularity doesn't mean they're always being used and managed properly. Quite the contrary. We found that many organizations simply recycle the same guidelines and best practices they use for their co-located teams and hope for the best. And frankly, that system wasn't working.

To help organizations maximize their investment in virtual collaboration, we conducted a study of 48 virtual teams to understand the success factors of top performing virtual teams. Surprisingly, 27% of virtual teams in our global study were not fully performing. Why did these virtual teams fail? We identified six lessons for effective virtual teamwork. We are confident that these lessons are a recipe for virtual team success.

LESSON #1: Focus on People Issues

Virtual teams need to compensate for the inherent lack of human contact by supporting team spirit, trust, and productivity. What are the warning signs that people issues need more attention? You may notice that team members work independently and do not collaborate or effectively interact with other members of the team. You may also notice that an "us verse them" mentality has developed between locations or sub-groups. What can you do to improve communication and relationships among team members? We suggest several actions:

  • § Develop a team page where virtual team members can share information and get to know one another
  • § Create ways for team members to interact and communicate informally
  • § Build a collective "resource bank" to share experiences
  • § Find ways to "spotlight" team members
  • § Send newsletters or updates to the team
  • § Create ways to virtually celebrate successes as a team
  • § Partner team members at different locations and rotate these periodically
LESSON #2: No trust, No Team

Task-based trust is one of the factors that differentiated top performing teams. In virtual teams trust seems to develop more readily at the task level than at the interpersonal level. Four warning signs there are low levels of trust are when team members (1) do not refer to themselves as "we," (2) do not appear to know one another very well, (3) are openly negative, and (4) do not regard the commitments of others as credible.

When faced with this situation, our research found that trust is most likely to develop under the following conditions:

  • § Teams meet face-to-face at least once early on in the team's formation
  • § Communication is truly open
  • § Members feel empowered to make and act on decisions
  • § Conflicts are managed and not avoided
  • § The team leader models and reinforces these positive behaviors

LESSON #3: "Soft" Skills Are Essential

The presence of "soft" skills makes a difference in virtual team performance. We found that virtual teams who have been through team building and interpersonal skill development perform better than those that do not. Yet, despite the strong link between training and virtual team performance, many organizations do not make this investment. What can you do to develop virtual team members?

  • § Use selection criteria or assessments when identifying virtual team members
  • § Teambuilding sessions-ideally conducted at an initial or subsequent face-to-face team meeting-to help team members get to know each other personally, strengthen working relationships, and create team momentum that can enhance team effectiveness
  • § Assess development needs for team members and team leaders and conduct skill building focused on these areas
  • § Reassess needs over time
LESSON #4: Watch Out For Performance Peaks

While virtual teams who have been working together for more than three years tend to be more successful than teams working together for less time, many virtual teams face a performance peak around the one year mark. While high performing virtual teams avoid this problem by implementing strategies to overcome this peak, less effective teams are not able to do so. When you see the warning signs of a performance peak-team members get along well but do not produce results, an apparent lack of direction, team members not committing adequate time to the team-there are four actions you can take:

  • Clearly define team roles and accountabilities to minimize frustration and misunderstandings that can damage morale and derail productivity
  • Review team processes regularly
  • Periodically examine the level of team performance. Collect feedback from various stakeholders to assess the team's performance
  • Based on the outcomes, identify barriers to high performance, as well as steps that can be taken to overcome these barriers.

LESSON #5: Create a "High Touch" Environment

Electronic technology has made virtual teaming possible but is not a perfect substitute for human interaction. One of the greatest performance barriers is the inability to replicate a high touch environment in a virtual setting. While meeting face-to-face requires time and expense, virtual teams that invest in one or two such meetings per year perform better overall than those that do not.

Poor communication, a lack of engagement, and lack of attention during virtual meetings are a few of the warning signs that a high touch environment has not been achieved. There are, however, several things that can be done to reverse this situation:

  • § Leverage synchronous tools (e.g., Instant Messaging) to increase spontaneous communication
  • § Use tools such as electronic bulleting boards to create a sense of shared space
  • § Carefully choose communication technologies that are most appropriate to the specific task
  • § Develop a communication strategy but re-examine these processes over time
  • § Make wider use of videoconferencing
LESSON #6: Virtual Team Leadership Matters

Leadership is the factor most important to the success of virtual teams. Our study and other research shows that leadership does, in fact, have a statistically significant correlation with higher performance on virtual teams. To be effective, team leaders in a virtual environment must be especially sensitive to interpersonal, communication, and cultural factors to overcome the limitations of distance.

The warning signs of an ineffective team leader include (1) the team is not meeting its performance objectives and deliverables are delayed or of poor quality, (2) relationship between the team members and the leader are damaged, (3) the leader is not clear about the team's direction or purpose, and (4) the team leader pays more attention to team members who are at his or her location or who they get along with.

Organizations can avoid this performance barrier by selecting team leaders that not only have the necessary technical skills but also have the soft skills required to effectively lead in a virtual environment.

If you're a team leader, it's not easy to learn that you may be the cause of your team's poor performance. But, should team leaders find themselves faced with this performance barrier, there are several things they can do to improve their performance:

  • § Set clear goals and direction and revisit these as priorities shift
  • § Engage team members in development of team strategy
  • § Provide time for team building and coordinate periodic face-to-face meetings
  • § Find ways to ensure that team members feel included
  • § Provide timely feedback to team members; be responsive and accessible
  • § Emphasize common interests and values and reinforce cooperation and trust
  • § Create a system to easily integrate new team members
  • § Teach the importance of conflict resolution
  • § Celebrate team achievements and successes

Organizations that get it right know that virtual teams and co-located teams are as different as the proverbial apples and oranges. But unfortunately, too many organizations have yet to catch on to this critical truth. We've seen plenty well-intentioned companies fail because they treated their virtual teams the same way they treat their co-located ones. And then there are the organizations that start virtual teams on a whim without planning or follow up-never a recipe for success. Organizations frequently set up virtual teams to address a particular business need. However, they jump in without really understanding what they're getting themselves into. With better planning they could dramatically improve their odds for success.


Rick is President of OnPoint Consulting and has a twenty year track record of success as a human resource consultant and executive. He was a Founder and Managing Partner of Manus, a human capital consulting firm, which he sold to Right Management Consultants in 1998. At Right, Rick was the Managing Vice President of the Northeast Consulting Practice where he was responsible to 55 professionals and grew revenue from $7 million to $20 million.

The focus of Rick's work has been on helpi...

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