by Donna Dennis
Virtual teams have become the team framework of the digital age, giving a company the means to combine the best talents and perspectives from anywhere in the organization. It’s hard to overstate the critical role that virtual teams play in the business world today.
In a major study conducted by Business Research Consortium (BRC) in association with American Management Association, 90 percent of the more than 1,500 surveyed said they had virtual teams in their organization and more than half attended seven or more virtual meetings in the past month. However, while common, working in virtual settings is more difficult than working where everyone shares the same physical space.
Virtual leaders and team members must be ready to meet the challenges associated with differing time zones, diverse nationalities and cultures of team members, and technology which frequently presents malfunctions and other distractions. Research shows that when managed effectively, virtual teams increase productivity, help meet organizational goals and improve the quality of work.
Moving from in-person to virtual work demands that participants learn to do all the things important to relationships and leadership in new ways. By utilizing Gestalt theory and practice, which is well grounded in helping people be effective in face-to-face interactions, practitioners can leverage key concepts and behaviors they already understand and use.
Here are some suggestions to improve efficiency and effectiveness of virtual teams that focus on the communications skills, trust building and protocols for success:
- Demonstrate presence-It is essential to establish trust early through common goals, strategies and shared purpose. Make sure to establish expectations so that all team members understand their role and responsibility to the team. The best virtual leaders build “swift” trust.
- Up the game on communication-What is true for in-person leaders is doubly true for virtual leaders. Communicate clearly and often.
- Utilize an optimistic stance-While disagreements and conflicts will occur, it is important that leaders proactively manage different perspectives to avoid conflicts that affect the progress of the team.
- Build awareness and a robust process-Lay the groundwork with a clear set of checkpoints and milestones for success.
- Adjust to the medium-Research shows that team member engagement is strongly influenced by the degree of visual feedback members receive. Without visual elements, participants must pick up on subtle voice cues, silences, and cross-culture cues. In a virtual setting, it is essential that the leader ask more questions to gain common understanding. Establish rules for response times, deadlines and technology use, and eliminate distractions by setting agreements on multitasking during virtual meetings.
- Share organizational knowledge-To keep everyone at the “virtual table,” try ideas like a quick round robin “check-in” at the start of a meeting to update the team on each member’s status.
- Manage the team size-An optimal size for a virtual team is 4-9 members according to a Wharton study by Evan Wittenberg. Larger teams reduce engagement and make it harder to communicate.
Working virtually does not mean that we give up deeply held values and beliefs about building relationships or getting work results. Rather, it simply means creatively finding ways through technology to demonstrate concepts and behaviors we hold as important. As one participant to a GISC virtual leadership course stated,
“Activities in virtual and collocated teams are often the same but leaders have to work harder on the protocols and expectations. Virtual leadership requires a much more disciplined approach because nothing can be left to chance with the details and planning associated with work or relationship building. Leaders must reach out and check in more frequently in a virtual environment; these personal connections build trust and relationships but they do not just happen. They are designed, planned for and very intentional.”
Virtual teams have a bottom-line impact on the organization, so every interaction can bring beneficial results. Good talent management combined with harnessing complex technologies and associated training can lead to increased productivity in the virtual world.
Donna Dennis, PhD, PCC, President of Leadership Solutions Consulting, is an executive coach and leadership development professional. She has practiced as a consultant internally and externally, taught at major universities such as the Wharton Business School, and conducted leadership research. Donna designed and teaches GISC’s Leading Virtual Teams program.