Getting Virtual Teams Right

JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

Information-development managers have had years of experience working with virtual teams. It all started with the Internet, of course. Before online communication came to dominate the world, most people needed to work together in one physical location. We had heard stories about a few remote workers. In the 1980s, Comtech and a handful of professional consulting groups headed by innovators like Ginny Redish and Paula Berger provided technical-communication services to remote organizations using telephones and “snail” mail. We actually shipped paper and computer disks full of draft and final content.

When email emerged in the early 1990s, it became common for writers to work at home, first a few days a week and then full-time. Rather than lose people who were moving away, managers offered them the opportunity to work remotely. Companies looked for opportunities to save on office space, providing employees with equipment and connectivity to work at home. By the time the Internet was everywhere, big business found a new way to save money by moving work to low-cost areas around the world, providing opportunities for writers in Asia and Eastern Europe.

Despite more than 20 years of experience managing virtual teams, however, managers and team members still struggle to provide the right level of communication and connection so that team members who may have never met face-to-face can still be productive.

In 2001, professors Vijay Govindarajan and Anil Gupta from MIT studied 70 virtual teams, reporting that 82% felt they failed to meet their goals and 33% considered that they were unsuccessful. Deloitte’s 2005 study that that 66% of IT projects handled by virtual teams were unable to meet customer requirements. Keith Ferrazzi, in his article, “Managing Yourself: Getting Virtual Teams Right” (Harvard Business Review, December 2014) found that “…most people consider virtual communication less productive than face-to-face interaction … .”

More recent studies have been more up beat. A 2009 study of global software development teams found that when the teams were well managed, they outperformed those who worked in the same office. Another study indicated that virtual teams could improve productivity.

The question is, of course, “What is the difference between successful and unsuccessful virtual teams?” How do we manage virtual teams more effectively? Ferrazzi outlines four crucial factors for virtual team success:

  • The right team
  • The right leadership
  • The right touchpoints
  • The right technology

The Right Team

Research into team size indicates that small virtual teams with fewer than 10 people are much more likely to succeed than large teams. When teams get too large, some members no longer feel responsibility for the team’s success and stop contributing fully. In fact, the “social loafing” factor kicks in with teams that have more than four or five members.

Advice: Keep your teams as small as possible.

Not everyone makes a successful virtual team member. The successful team members are good communicators, have high emotional intelligence, work well independently, and recover quickly from problems. Ferrazzi recommends using a Meyers-Briggs personality profile to evaluate potential team members for these critical skills. Even an existing team should be evaluated for strengths and weaknesses.

Advice: Assemble strong virtual teams members, coach those who lack important skills, and reassign those that help out.

If you need people from a variety of professional areas in the company, consider dividing them into subteams. According to MIT professor Deborah Ancona, team members may easily fall into three tiers: the executive group responsible for strategy, the operational group that leads the project, and the outer group that supplies expertise in key areas.

Advice: Divide large teams into small subteams with specific work assignments.

The Right Leadership

If you’re leading a virtual team, you need to use all your skill at interpersonal relationships to establish and maintain communications and team esprit de corps. Unlike face-to-face teams, virtual teams may have problems developing the personal relationships that help people work together. One team had members use video to show off their working environments to the other teams members. Activities like this one help build trust among the members as they get to know one another.

Advice: Devote some time at every meeting to personal items to help break through the isolation of visual team members.

If team members trust one another, they are more likely to provide constructive criticism. Apparently, if you are leading a virtual team, you need to ensure that team members are open and honest with one another. At the same time, you need to get people to avoid accusatory feedback. Consider developing some standard phrases for people to use when offering feedback so that it isn’t negative. At the same time, ensure that team members are open and honest about areas that need to be improved.

Advice: Encourage constructive and caring feedback among the team members.

Most of us recognize that teams need to have well-defined goals and rules of operation. It’s up to the leadership to make certain that the team’s purpose is well articulated. Rules of engagement need to be established carefully to reduce uncertainty and help everyone meet objectives. We have seen virtual teams that fail because the required actions were not made clear and deadlines were not laid out in writing. Many times failures occurred because of different cultural expectations among globally dispersed teams.

Establish a process to ensure that people are not multitasking during team meetings, a common problem that 82% of people in a study confessed to. Some teams switched to video, which served to eliminate multitasking.

One successful team used video and music to add some fun to the often-deadly round of conference calls. They played music associated with the theme of the call and got everyone dancing via video.

Advice: Define the goals, establish the rules of engagement, keep everyone engaged, and make sure that the team has fun.

The Right Touchpoints

It’s easy for corporate executives to clamp down on travel costs because they are so visible. But virtual teams that never meet are less likely to succeed and more likely to waste resources getting nowhere. If you’re leading a virtual team with a real problem to solve, insist on an initial face-to-face meeting and the frequent use of well-performing video. A face-to-face meeting will help to build trust among team members and ensure that everyone understands the goals and the rules of engagement.

An initial meeting will also help you, as the team leader, to look for weaknesses and identify people who may have a difficult time connecting. You can try pairing people (weaker and stronger) and giving them a small task assignment that they can handle well.

Advice: Schedule an in person kickoff meeting.

If you introduce a new member to an established virtual team, use the same introductory techniques that you used with the initial team members. Get the newcomers to introduce themselves through video. Have them travel to a central location where they can meet more team members.

One manager I worked with helped new team members develop “dance cards” with the names and areas of expertise of key team members and experts so they could reach out to people who could help them learn the ropes. If you don’t recognize dance cards, they were the devices used by debutants to ensure they had partners for every dance at the cotillion.

Advice: Establish a dynamic onboarding process for new team members.

When teams are virtual, especially when they are global and virtual, the emails and conference calls are just not enough to keep people moving forward. All the signs we rely on for project success are missing, making it easy for misunderstandings to become established.

Ferrazzi suggests get people together to celebrate short-term wins or great work on tough problems. One leader he quotes insists on bringing virtual team members together quarterly and finds it important to take time to welcome new team members.

Advice: Celebrate important team milestones, especially short-term successes so that people learn that they are making real progress toward their goals.

The Right Technology

Ferrazzi reports that, in his experience, even well-organized and well-managed virtual teams can be adversely affected by bad technology. He recommends technology that integrates multiple functions into a single system. The functions should include conference calling that don’t require access codes, text messaging and direct phone calls, and forums or virtual team rooms.

He likes conference calling without access codes because people can call in while they are driving, although I think it’s not a good move to talk while driving considering the number of accidents attributed to distracted drivers. He also suggests that conference calls be recorded so that people can listen in later. He especially likes video conferencing so that people can see one another and avoid multi-tasking.

He finds texting very effective, something we use frequently through Skype. Skype facilitates texting and video conferencing, besides facilitating file sharing. I often wonder why so many companies forbid people from using Skype at work. We find it an invaluable tool for the virtual teams that we lead.

Skype can function a lot like a virtual team room. You can add multiple attendees and the messages can be saved. Ferrazzi advocates virtual team room or forums so that people comment on discussions over longer periods of time. Forums also allow all the members of the larger teams to contribute their thoughts to the interactions. He finds that collaboration platforms add efficiencies to virtual teams.

In large organizations, I find it helpful to identify individuals by their expertise so that team members working on a problem can connect with experts from throughout the organization.

Thoughts

I have worked closely with and led many virtual teams in the past 35 years. It was much more difficult when we had only telephones and snail mail. Email made everything much faster and more immediate although we unfortunately lost most of the ability to talk directly. People simply stopped answering their phones.

Using virtual meeting spaces and Skype has added important functionality, especially through open microphones, shared screens and files, and recordings. Nonetheless, virtual teams continue to challenge. Today, our team members are in so many time zones, that setting meetings times has become very difficult. Someone is usually in a meeting when they would rather be at home.

However, I find Ferrazzi’s suggestions promising and intend to try several of them very soon. I hope that CIDM members will also try more collaborative techniques with other colleagues in the association. Remember that we designed CIDM to facilitate conversations among management professionals. Use these techniques to reach out to others in the field. I’m always happy to facilitate.