Do you have a virtual team that isn’t quite clicking? Maybe you’re getting through the basics, but it seems much more mechanical and “out of sight” regularly turns into “out of mind” for your team. I remember when I first researched and then wrote my doctoral dissertation on best practices with virtual teams nearly 20 years ago. At the time, I discovered that even though the use of virtual teams was becoming more and more prevalent for companies to maintain their competitive edge, creating high-performing virtual teams still remained a mystery for many business leaders.
Unfortunately, I would offer that not much has changed over the years. Virtual teams frequently lack the executive sponsorship and management support required to be successful. They also seem to suffer from significant skill gaps due to incomplete team composition and/or a lack of training for working virtually. As a result, many organizations still regularly experience some of the greatest challenges with virtual teaming today. I recently led a workshop on best practices for virtual teaming for a group of project managers in Los Angeles, and when I asked them what their greatest frustrations with virtual teams were they shared the following:
- Communication challenges – If more than 90% of what we communicate comes from our body language and the tone of our message, then less than 10% comes from the actual words we speak. That means that our fellow virtual team members will likely fill in the non-verbal blanks and potentially read something else into what we say – or type! – when we communicate with them. This is why we need to be extremely careful about how we communicate our messages within a virtual setting and at least pick up the phone when we have to share bad news or controversial updates with anyone.
- Lack of physical presence – In-person, face-to-face interactions are so much richer and more complete than virtual communications. Even with continuing advances in teleconference and videoconference technologies, it’s critical to the success of a virtual team to schedule regular in-person meetings whenever possible, even if that’s only once a year. You can also schedule more frequent site visits where virtual team members visit other team sites and build “connection time” into any interpersonal and/or group interactions.
- Distractions and sidebar conversations during virtual team meetings – Whenever a team is dispersed across a few different locations, it is quite common for the co-located team members to have sidebar conversations and talk amongst themselves during virtual team meetings. If you ever have individual team members who call in from their own desks or other remote locations, they can even get distracted with email and other work when they are isolated from their teams. This is why successful virtual team leaders are also effective virtual meeting facilitators to manage their virtual team interactions and keep everyone engaged in these critical conversations.
- Lack of standard protocols with tools and technologies – Communication tools and technologies are at the heart of virtual teamwork. The virtual workplace literally would not exist if it weren’t for these systems. The success of a virtual team, though, is not just about having all of the latest and greatest tools at your virtual finger tips. Virtual team members need to discuss and determine when to use each of these technologies. Virtual team leaders, then, must develop clear protocols of which tools to use and when to ensure proper and consistent usage of all available technologies.
- Follow-the-moon schedule – While many celebrate the follow-the-sun capabilities of their virtual teams, the downside to this “always working” routine is that someone is in fact always up and working! That’s great for enabling the completion of sequential work tasks if you can hand off something to a virtual teammate before leaving the office and going to sleep. It’s not so great if you need to coordinate same-time communications with your global team members if that means somebody will now be up with the moon rather than asleep.
- Limited ability to measure productivity and track results – While there are countless systems available today to track an employee’s every login and key stroke, it is much more difficult to monitor how productive your virtual team members are actually being. Are they logging into their computers and disappearing to take extended restroom breaks? Or are they simply offline brainstorming and drafting preliminary documents away from their desks? It’s critical for virtual team leaders to conduct regular check-ins to help their virtual team members manage their performance and stay on track.
If you are struggling to create a high-performing virtual team, keep an eye out for Part II of this article for additional best practices in virtual teaming.
Do you have a virtual team that isn’t quite clicking? Maybe you’re getting through the basics, but it seems much more mechanical and “out of sight” regularly turns into “out of mind” for your team. Maybe it’s time to take a pulse of your virtual teams and see how they are really performing. See the Organizational Assessment page of Plus Delta’s website for more on that. You can also call us at +1.310.589.4600 or email us if you would like to discuss the best approach. Plus Delta’s CEO Dr. Jeremy Lurey can even facilitate a targeted team workshop and review some best practices for designing and supporting effective virtual teams with you if you would like.