Virtual Teams Are a "Virtual Reality" for Businesses

Published: Jan 24, 2019

For more and more businesses, the challenge of managing people in diverse locations has become a reality, ready or not. According to a recent study by The Conference Board: “With business operations growing increasingly global, maintaining dispersed employees and identifying key tools for optimizing their efficiency and engagement become all the more vital to business success.” The Conference Board found that although more than 60% of the respondents felt that managing same-site employees is easier than managing distance employees, nearly 80% said that the extra costs of enabling employees to work at a distance do pay off.

(The following insights are from AMA’s seminar #2280 “Leading Virtual and Remote Teams.”)

Advantages of Virtual Teams
  • Reducing costs—by reducing travel cost and time and designing better digitally enhanced processes.
    • Shortening cycle time—by moving from serial to parallel processes, establishing better communications and more widespread trust.
  • Increasing innovation—by permitting more diverse participation, stimulating product and process creativity, and encouraging new business development synergies.
  • Leveraging learning—by capturing knowledge in the natural course of doing the work, gaining wider access to expertise, and sharing excellent practices.

Challenges Presented by Virtual Teams

  • Keeping people “in touch” without daily face-to-face contact
  • Managing cultural differences that are “virtually” guaranteed
  • Working with time shifts and extra long days
  • Establishing communication norms to reduce frequent misunderstandings
  • Maintaining trust without formal socializing
  • Learning new tools and managing the overhead associated with them
  • Navigating your way without any existing blueprint
  • Inventing a new field/style of leadership “on the fly”
  • People are not likely to collaborate if they are more than 50 feet apart (from a study by MIT Professor Tom Allen)

Common Virtual Team Problems and How to Avoid/Solve Them

Problem: Being clear about the project goals and outcomes and “where we are.”
Solution: Set clear goals, mission, and time frame; develop communication plan and use shared workspace for updates.

Problem: Misunderstanding around individuals’ responsibilities and rights.
Solution: Make written agreements and establish clear relationships and network map.

Problem: Deciding and understanding how decisions are made.
Solution: Discuss different types of decision making and identify which you are using at each stage.

Problem: Managing conflict.
Solution: Get it out as fast as possible; pair people with differing opinions to work on a nonconflictual task.

Problem: Evaluating team and member performance.
Solution: Set realistic recognition and reward structures that acknowledge individual and group contribution; include all involved in the evaluation—beyond 360, meaning adding other circles of those who are involved on a part-time basis.

Problem: Lack of motivation.
Solution: Establish an identity; celebrate milestones.

Problem: Cultural misunderstandings.
Solution: Invest in cultural understanding work and have noninvolved party serve as facilitators when misunderstandings occur; visit other cultures either in person or virtually; encourage lots of intercultural, nonwork-related interaction.

Problem: Time shifts and long days.
Solution:  Be aware of everybody’s location and try to rotate times.

Problem: Lack of trust/candor.
Solution: Devote time to understand what builds trust and how destructive hiding things can be; encourage building of dense social networks.

Problem: Losing documents or having wrong versions
Solution: Use shared teamspace and develop document-naming conventions.

Problem: Long, boring conference calls.
Solution: Avoid status updates; ask high-energy questions; use teleconferencing or web conferencing where possible. Limit calls to 90 minutes.

Problem: Learning new tools.
Solution: Create guidelines for using new technologies.

Best Practices for Leading Virtual and Remote Teams

  • Meetings
    • Always supply participants with an agenda.
    • Avoid status reporting during meetings.
    • Use Web collaboration/conferencing applications and screen sharing so everyone has access to the same information.
    • Rotate facilitator, note taker, timekeeper, and telephone buddies.
    • Keep notes and display them.
    • Have all participants check in and check out.
    • Get voices in the room with unexpected query.
    • Say your name each time you speak.
    • Generate heat: discuss, disagree, decide.

  • Hiring and Management
    • Hold periodic face-to-face meetings (to build trust and review roles).
    • Regularly communicate each person’s role and business objectives.
    • Ensure that team members are comfortable using technologies.
    • Use simple and clear language.
    • Provide criticism in private but announce successes loudly.
    • Ensure that all team members are committed to the same goals.
    • Select a well-qualified team and leader.
    • Ensure commitment to the project by all members.
    • Define the project process/flow (including deliverables, defined milestones for tracking progress, systematic process).
    • Treat every person as an equal member of the team (regardless of employee/consultant/contractor status).

Managing virtual teams requires a new mind set and a specific rule set. Companies that don’t embrace this new reality may be at great risk. Linda Barrington, Research Director and Labor Economist at The Conference Board, warns: “The issue of whether or not to allow employees to work at a distance is no longer a cost benefit issue—it is simply the reality of doing business. And effective management of dispersed employees is a key to success in that new reality.”