Four Ways to Make Virtual Teams Work

By Joe Mullich  |  Posted 06-24-2005 Print Email

Every company has teams with critical responsibilities whose members are spread out all over the country or the world. The problem of bridging barriers is formidable, but here are some tips on how to make virtual teams really work.

Virtual teams divided by distance but connected by electronic means of communication and a need to work in a coordinated way often break down because of poor communication.

That's not surprising, considering that global teams are often composed of people who don't share the same first language.

Karen Sobel Lojeski, the program director for the business and technology program at the Stevens Institute of Technology, has identified eight factors that create "virtual distance" which is the difficulties people have working together when their interaction is done primarily through technology.

The following four factors speak to the trouble virtual teams have in communicating:

Interdependence

For a virtual team to be successful, the goals of the individual members of the team have to be matched up and linked with one another.

But even more importantly, the members of the teams have to perceive that they are working together toward the same goal.

When organizations outsource some or all of their operations, for instance, they tend to send mixed messages about what level of innovation they want.

There's no question that in virtual teams, the individual goals of team members often become hazy if they aren't directly attached to an organizational mandate.

Click here to read the first two parts of this series: Part I: Ending the Emotional Friction of Virtual Teams
and Part II: Make Your Team Stronger by Bridging 'Virtual Distance.'

"In the past, we automatically thought everyone's interests were somewhat aligned," says Roy Nicolosi, CIO and vice president of ISO, a Jersey City, N.J.-based risk management firm.

"That was naïve on our part because we hadn't done a lot of acquisitions" that brought far-flung groups of people together.

ComCorp, a $3 billion networking company, found that a successful training and development team, composed of people in 17 time zones, depended on firm goal-setting from the outset.

To keep goals on track, each virtual team member wrote a personal development plan, after getting input from the team leader.

Two consultants who wrote a case study of the project noted, "Members need a compelling business challenge that is personally relevant and energizes them. Therefore, it is critical that all virtual team members jointly define the team's identity, goals and processes."

In addition to these steps, Lojeski says, virtual-distance managers need to be better trained on how to demonstrate how the goals and tasks their team is doing are interdependent and hooked into the larger business strategy. Teams can often lose sight of this on long projects and need constant reinforcement to stay on track.

ComCorp, for example, had a one-on-one telephone meeting with the team leader and each virtual-team member every two weeks.

Relationship History

Lojeski's study found that a large factor in virtual-team success was whether the people on the team know each other in advance (what academics call "strong ties") or at least know some of the same people ("weak ties").

Studies have found that people with strong ties tend to work effectively together, but their relationship doesn't benefit a larger team because these two people don't get outside their own circle.

Instead, virtual teams can be strengthened by seeding the team with people who have weak ties—they don't know each other directly, but know some of the same people in common.

Technical Skills

In this era of technical sophistication, CIOs might not realize all the stumbling blocks that still exist to using technology.

For instance, in the Lojeski study, a major financial services firm outsourced QA testing to programmers in Indian. However, because of security restrictions and other processes in place, programmers couldn't access some of the codes they needed to perform the tests.

Communication

Virtual distance can be reduced by giving virtual teams more opportunities to communicate face-to-face.

Obviously, this is difficult to do in many situations. At a minimum, though, virtual teams should meet face-to-face at the beginning of the project and during critical moments, such as to handle major problems or when a major interaction with a customer occurs.

Less technically competent team members may be less inclined, or even less able to communicate, and thus don't forge the kind of relationships with other team members that would lower virtual distance.

"There's been an assumption that if you give people the right technology to communicate that they'll work out all the other issues for themselves," Nicolosi says. "But we're learning that isn't the case at all."

Putting It All Together

When selecting virtual team members, CIOs should keep in mind that people with better technical and interpersonal skills are more likely to be committed to the project and to other team members.

Jenny Goodbody, a global change manager with the BOC Group, found a key in managing her virtual teams was to select technology that was as simple to use as possible—weekly teleconferences, e-mail, ad hoc telephone calls, and a central document repository.

She notes that technology skills can be taught in a relatively short time, but other important skills, such as adaptability, flexibility and self-management, are more complicated to develop.

When putting together virtual teams in the past, ISO used to focus on the overall skills that a team required, rather than on how well team members worked together. Now, Nicolosi matches the personality of the project manager more closely to the individual project and to the personality of other the team members.

For instance, Nicolosi wouldn't put an overly aggressive manager in a charge of a virtual team filled with people who were new to the organization.

However on a project that involved two silos, which were constantly fighting, "I would want my most impressive guy, who would have an eye on just getting the project done," he says.

Lojeski recommends that companies with many virtual teams use a Virtual Distance facilitator, who is specifically charged with handling the issues that grow out of virtual distance.

This person would move among locations, implementing programs and training to improve the level of trust among team members.

The ideal Virtual Distance facilitators are – in human resources lingo – "transformational people," who are open to new ideas, take a lot of time to thoroughly understand issues, and are skilled at facilitating conversations.

"For this position, you need a renaissance person who is generally experienced in project teams, knows the technical issues, and can bridge some of the gaps that exist," Lojeski says.

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