The virtual team is here to stay. It is a group of people who are required to pursue shared objectives while based at distant work sites. Members of this team can be in different regions or different locations in the same country. They will therefore frequently need to communicate using electronic or “virtual” means, such as emails, video-conferences and group calls. Often, the team members will come from different cultures as they work across borders. But research shows that over 50 % of virtual teams fail to meet their objectives and when adding across cultural element, the rate goes higher. In part 3 of this article we look at how to make sure you can fall into the successful 50%.
How to ensure a virtual team survives and thrives
Critical success factors to consider when establishing and managing a virtual team are in the following areas:
Building and maintaining a positive organisational culture and identity is key. All employees, not just virtual team members, need to be educated about the challenges of virtual teams and the factors for success. HR professionals could organise workshops for all staff, including senior management and executives, to explain how virtual teams in function, and what specific leadership skills are required. They could also provide guidelines on working in and with virtual teams in the employee handbook. Virtual teams also need to be promoted and rewarded in order to boost their sense of belonging to the organisation.
When launching a virtual team, it is preferable that selected employees already know each other, or have good connections outside of the work environment. Virtual teams are similar to traditional ones in their composition: there are a senior managers, team leaders and staff. Yet, good leadership is paramount in this situation: it is crucial that HR professionals and line managers clearly define and formalise roles to avoid ambiguous processes and lack of hierarchy. Explicit descriptions about how decisions are made are also important. As trust is measured by reliability in virtual teams, leaders need to create a highly defined process where team members deliver specific results in a repeated sequence. They must also work towards building the virtual team’s confidence and commitment, for example through following up promptly on promises, and gaining early wins. They need to have a higher level of professionalism and expertise.
Additionally, in a multi-cultural contexts, increased awareness of cultural diversity and its implications can lead to better adjustment behaviours on the part of virtual team members. In the Journal of Management Information Systems Winter 2006-7, cultural diversity is cited as one of the key potential causes of conflict in virtual teams. As such, highlighting differences between members from individualistic cultures and members from collectivistic cultures is recommended, so that they can better appreciate the perspectives of their teammates. This could be done in a webinars. Promoting a dominant organisational culture amongst employees is also a means to successfully cross boundaries.
Tailored management, assessment and control systems need to be established to ensure that virtual teams are high-performing and efficient. It is important to adjust workload tracking systems to span the work performed. Processes need to be developed in two major areas:
(a) Task-related: there should be clearly outlined processes that ensure each team member is contributing fully; and (b) Socio-emotional: processes should increase the cohesion of the group. For instance, HR professionals and managers could assign specific tasks to team members in different locations to allow them to move ahead at their own pace without being held up by colleagues – this also helps deal with any potential time zone challenges.
Standard sets of electronic communication and collaboration technologies (eg laptops with a camera, company mobile phones) should be provided, and all members of the virtual team need to be able to access these. Online tools that enable employees to learn about each other quickly and easily are also important. It is important that the company provides a readily accessible database of all staff with their roles, division and position in the organisational structure, and who they report to.
5 researched points from sociologists to successfully manage a virtual team :
- Developing mutual goals is hard work and requires quality face to face time.
- Early wins are paramount for virtual teams.
- Leaders role must take on added importance of managing the virtual team and the complexity. (Stuster)
- Manage conference calls with an aggressive eye towards building the teams confidence, trust and commitment (Katzenbach).
- Pay conscious attention to the development and maintenance of trust among team members (Kanawattanachai And Yoo )