Virtual teams are on the rise in every industry and with good reason. The ability to accomplish goals as a team without being located in the same physical location can accelerate processes, reduce costs and enable true global collaboration. However, the challenges of virtual teams are also greater than those in co-located teams.
A virtual team can be defined here as a group of people who work interdependently with a shared purpose across space, time and organization boundaries using technology. However, all the existing technology that connects people on virtual teams has limitations. Without the benefit of sitting next to or across a conference room table from others, much is lost in terms of clear communication, mutual trust, and overall group dynamics. Communication is especially difficult without nonverbal clues such as body language and facial expressions. And anything that can go wrong face-to-face can also go wrong with virtual teams—only faster and less gracefully.
The key requirements for highly effective teams (co-located or virtual) include:
Trust – People work together effectively because they trust one another. With trust, groups converse easily, organize tasks more quickly, and manage themselves better. Without face-to-face clues, trust is harder to attain and easier to lose.
Respect – Everyone on the team has something to contribute and everyone’s opinion needs to be welcome. Only through this mutual respect can teams expect to function well.
Cooperation – In order to function effectively as a team, it is vital to fully cooperate with one another. This means allowing for disagreements and welcoming challenges with regard to one another’s view.
Commitment – Perhaps the most important requirement for a highly effective team is the commitment we each make to the team. Only through our commitment will we persevere through difficult periods when we otherwise might lose hope.
To be highly effective, virtual teams need all of the above as well as the following key requirements:
1. Appropriate Technology – Using the right technology to enable effective collaboration and communication is vital. This technology may include email, conference calls, video-conferencing, remote presentations, text messaging, chat-rooms, bulletin boards, web-conferencing, and other tools. Encourage the use of a variety of them to deepen collaboration and broaden perspectives.
2. Outstanding Communication – Choosing the appropriate medium (video conferencing, email, telephone, etc.), depending on the message, can be as important as the content itself. You should also carefully consider your audience and the context for your message. Then ensure that the words you use will not be confused or misinterpreted.
3. Shared Vision & Goals – Establishing a clear and inspiring vision as well as team goals shared among all members is vital to optimal performance. In addition, clarity among individual roles as well as group and individual expectations are necessary for all members to be on the same page.
4. Sense of Community – Every community requires mutual trust, respect, fairness, and affiliation. These are essential on virtual teams because individuals can often feel isolated across time and space, and requires creative ways to build a sense of community among all members. This can often be accomplished through team building and team bonding exercises, but requires continual attention.
5. Strong (and Shared) Leadership – With the absence of an opportunity to “manage by walking around,” leaders should check-in with individuals spontaneously to discuss issues or opportunities that arise. Leadership on virtual teams is often shared and this should be encouraged whenever possible so bottlenecks don’t slow progress.
6. Coordination and Collaboration – Because we don’t physically see each other working on a specific task, it is essential for a greater level of tracking and coordinating on projects in virtual teams. This coordination often transcends organizational boundaries and requires the collaboration of every team member.
7. Appropriate Electronic Body Language – Our tone of voice in conference calls, word choice and sentence structure in emails, and the speed of our response can all impact how our messages are received and interpreted. Virtual teams require that we are mindful and more deliberate in how we convey our messages.
All teams require trust, respect, cooperation and commitment to be highly effective, and virtual teams require this and more. By paying particular attention to the seven key requirements, your virtual team can be highly effective as well.
Mark Craemer www.craemerconsulting.com