By Richard Lepsinger
Virtual teams are more popular than ever. In today’s complex organizations, it is not uncommon to have as many as 50% of employees working on virtual teams. It's not hard to see why. Advances in technology have made it easier to organize and manage dispersed groups of people. In addition, competitive pressures and the globalization of the workforce have made virtual teams a necessity for some organizations.
Unfortunately, despite the solid business reasons for implementing a virtual strategy, in practice, that strategy is not always well executed. In our book, Virtual Team Success, we reference an OnPoint Consulting study that was designed to help organizations maximize their investment in virtual collaboration. The study included over 48 virtual teams across industries and found that 27% of the virtual teams surveyed were not fully performing.
Another study discussed in the MIT Sloan Management Review reinforced those findings. In that study, only 18% of the 70 global business virtual teams assessed were found to be highly successful. That means a whopping 82% did not achieve their goals. The reason, we believe, is that organizations approach working on and leading virtual teams as if the dynamics were the same as those for colocated teams. We found that many organizations simply recycled the same guidelines and best practices they used for their co-located teams and hoped for the best. Face-to-face teams and virtual teams, however, are like the proverbial “apples and oranges.”
We have pinpointed the following common reasons for virtual team failure:
Ineffective leadership. Leadership is the factor most important to the success of virtual teams. Here are some of the warning signs of an ineffective team leader:
- The team is not meeting its performance objectives and deliverables are delayed or of poor quality
- Relationships between the team members and the leader are damaged
- The leader is not clear about the team's direction or purpose
- The team leader pays more attention to team members who are at his/her location or whom he/she gets along with.
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. Organizations should select team leaders who have not only the necessary technical skills but also the team-building and interpersonal skills required to effectively lead in a virtual environment. If you're a team leader, get your team organized. Set goals and establish the direction in which you'd like the team to go. And always keep members engaged through timely feedback, team-building exercises, and periodic face-to-face meetings.
Lack of clear goals, direction, or priorities. As with any team, a lack of clear goals and priorities will inhibit performance. Moreover, because it is tougher to communicate with and inform team members who are geographically distributed, this can be an even bigger problem for virtual teams. The most effective virtual teams outline team goals and objectives immediately, then reassess and adjust as priorities shift over time.
Lack of clear roles among team members. High-performing virtual teams establish clear roles upfront and continually reassess and ensure clarity of roles over time. Clarifying accountabilities and outlining how and when team members should work together minimizes delays and inefficiencies that are common when working virtually. For example, one global information technology team in our study created a “team handbook” that provided background on each team member and clearly laid out how each person was to contribute to the team. When questions arose during large, complex projects, team members checked the handbook to determine which team member to consult.
Lack of cooperation. When a diverse group of individuals is asked to work together to accomplish shared objectives, it takes time to build an atmosphere of collaboration. And because there is a lack of face-to-face contact inherent in virtual teamwork, the process of establishing trust and relationships can be even more challenging.
Office cliques and the conflicts that come with them can still form with virtual teams just as they can with colocated teams. Take, for example, a virtual team in OnPoint's study that we will call “TeamInnovate.” Two-thirds of that team's members were located in Philadelphia while the remaining one-third were scattered in different sites around the world. Naturally, the team members in Philadelphia developed stronger relationships with one another than they did with the members who worked outside the main hub.
Unfortunately, this set-up led to the formation of subgroups, which began to impede team collaboration. Several team members routinely worked together on projects and didn't keep other team members informed. Over time, this lack of collaboration led to an erosion of trust amongst team members. The high-performing virtual teams in the study were better equipped to handle these kinds of conflicts than were the low-performing teams.
Lack of engagement. People in virtual teams can easily become bored and “check out” because of the lack of dynamic face-to-face interaction and because there are more distractions. If you're a virtual team leader, regularly ask yourself the following questions:
—Are all team members contributing to conversations and projects?
—Are they attending and actively participating in team meetings?
—Are team members motivated to take on new work, or are they feeling overwhelmed?
—Are people working well together, or is there frequent and unproductive team conflict?
If you monitor your team’s performance to ensure that the team is always fully engaged, their effectiveness will be much improved.
Inability to replicate a “high-touch” environment. Electronic technology has made virtual teaming possible but is not a perfect substitute for human interaction. While meeting face-to-face requires time and expense, virtual teams that meet face to face once or twice each year perform better overall than those who do not. Leveraging tools such as Instant Messaging to increase spontaneous communication can also help, as can a tool such as an electronic bulletin board, which creates a sense of shared space. Finally, be sure to develop a communication strategy and continuously reexamine it to ensure everyone is comfortable with and engaged by the communication set-up.
Organizations that succeed using virtual teams know that virtual teams and colocated teams cannot be built and managed in the same ways. Because they take the time to understand and address the unique challenges presented by virtual teams they have a much greater chance of success than those that proceed without proper planning. By educating leaders and team members about the common virtual team pitfalls, we hope to help organizations create strong, prosperous virtual teams.
About the Author(s)
Richard Lepsinger is president of OnPoint Consulting. He is coauthor, with Darleen DeRosa, Ph.D., of Virtual Team Success: A Practical Guide for Working and Leading from a Distance (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, 2010). Author of Closing the Execution Gap, he is also coauthor of four books on leadership. For more information, visit www.onpointconsultingllc.com