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A Leader’s Guide to Effective Virtual Teams

With the right kind of work and a conscientious leader, virtual teams can help drive a company's business in an effective and cost-efficient way. 

Virtual teams offer a promising alternative to traditional, co-located teams, with widespread benefits to businesses and employees all over the world. But effective leadership is crucial for virtual teams, and recognizing the benefits and challenges of the structure is the first step in making virtual teams work.

Why virtual teams?
Cost savings can be a powerful motivation to use virtual teams; but the non-monetary advantages may be even more considerable.

Technological advances have eased the way for globalization, and the workforce is no exception. Virtual teams can take advantage of the diversity and availability of staff across the world, enabling a company to tap into a larger workforce pool than can ever exist in one market. And by eliminating the need to locate an office in a major metropolitan city, workers from less advantaged areas can more easily participate in the workplace.

Employers who choose virtual teams can realize the benefits of increased productivity, because work can continue across time zones, essentially around the clock. Eliminating  space and time constraints can also result in more satisfied employees, who benefit from flexible hours.

Setting up virtual teams to succeed
Traditional team rules may be even more crucial to virtual teams than for co-located teams. Although technology enables constant communication, it’s important to recognize the appropriate method of communication for different messages:

  • Use email to relay information that’s complex and not time-sensitive
  • Use team communication tools like chat for quick, timely communication
  • Use digital bulletin boards for interaction among many different employees
  • Use video to help avoid miscommunication by most closely resembling face-to-face communication

Shared goals that are clearly conveyed to all team members and supported by regular progress reports are critical to facilitating the teamwork that can suffer in the absence of a common workspace. Frequent check-ins are necessary, as is having a knowledge repository that team members can tap into.

However, the most crucial element in the success of a virtual team is a leader who is able to inspire, motivate and keep the team focused on outcomes.

Role of the leader
Effectively managing virtual teams requires a special kind of leadership. Without the context of a physical location, where team members can see their entire team as well as the rest of the corporate structure, the team can feel untethered. The leader needs to hold regular “town hall” style meetings, to unite the team with the company goals and company vision, and show them where they fit in. Although the team members may have a deep understanding of their individual responsibilities, the leader needs to connect the dots to reveal the whole picture. Once a year, at least, the leader needs to meet in person with the team for what I call “the touch and feel of leadership.”

Potential obstacles and pitfalls of virtual teams
Although the work output of virtual teams may be identical to that of a co-located team, there can be increased challenges to ensure high-quality productivity and relationships.

Co-located offices provide a community environment where communication is often in-person, and proximity streamlines the information flow. Workers in a virtual office environment don’t have the benefit of the physical closeness that helps build relationships. A reliance on written communications via email, text and chat can lead to misunderstandings as they lack the emotional cues present during face-to-face communications. Compounding the issue can be language barriers and differences in cultural behavior, if the virtual members come from diverse backgrounds. Finally, the reliance on technology for communication means that any interruption in the reliability of the technology can have a serious impact on productivity.

Although virtual teams may be perceived as an entry-level environment where more seasoned workers won’t feel comfortable, experience shows that this isn’t true. Because of the challenges of working in virtual teams, it is often suggested that entry-level workers spend a few years in a co-located office where they can become proficient at their work tasks without the additional challenges of virtual work. Employees with more experience are often better equipped to handle the extra responsibility.

Knowledge transfer can be another challenge for virtual teams. Although information can transfer almost effortlessly within co-located offices, virtual teams need to ensure they have a way of capturing data so that it can be referenced at any time in the future without regard to current staffing.

Best practices for hiring in virtual teams
Leaders who hire for virtual teams should look for special characteristics in order to make a successful hire. It often surprises people when I recommend to “slightly overhire” in terms of competency. For the team to succeed, its members need to be fast learners, self-starters whom you trust to work alone. Employees in virtual teams perform better when members have superior skills in rapid ramp ups, self-direction and communication. Using video chat during the interview process can help ensure these skills are in place.

Some companies have established processes and programs in place to guide new employees through the virtual on-boarding. Whether or not those are available, it’s important to pair newer employees with more experienced staffers to help get them up to speed.

Once hired, the leader should set clear and comprehensive goals with 90-day plans, virtual tours of the company and other on-boarding tools. Frequent reporting, a consistent meeting schedule and productivity benchmarks are even more important when day-to-day interactions are missing, and reviews should be conducted frequently versus once every six months or a year.

Scheduling a weekly video chat among all team members will help develop relationships and foster transparency. It also will help keep participants focused and involved, encourage their sense of teamwork, and ensure that facial expressions and other body language provide emotional cues to help team members understand each other. Establishing and communicating team rules will ensure that everyone is in the loop regarding expectations. It’s also important to encourage employees to communicate with each other in a “watercooler” fashion — discussing their lives outside of work to build camaraderie.

Framework for when to use virtual teams 

Virtual teams are an offshoot of outsourcing and offshoring, which started with IT companies. Engineering functions, due to their innovative and collaborative nature, are more complex and require a strategic purpose of when virtual teams are appropriate.

Virtual teams work better for some tasks than others. Typically, more collaborative and more complex tasks need to be co-located with team members or customers. The less complex and collaborative the workload is, the better it can be achieved via virtual teams. Digitally enabled tasks are often simpler to handle offshore. See the adjacent graph that represents the relationship between complexity and collaboration; it helps show when using virtual teams is most likely to succeed.

Globalization indicates that virtual teams will become even more prevalent in the future. Leveraging their usage effectively can benefit a company across the board, providing advantages in productivity, efficiency and cost savings. Optimal management practices will help ensure they live up to their potential.

EASi – a leader in virtual teams
It takes a highly cohesive project team and a tightly integrated global organization to make sure that the entire matrix is managed seamlessly, giving the client the full advantage. EASi is a pioneer in engineering services, with extensive experience in onsite, near site, onshore and offshore capabilities, and vast global resources. In fact, 50 percent of EASi’s workforce is virtual. EASi’s deep expertise in managing diverse staffing models helps ensure that companies can build the best workforce for their unique needs to maximize their potential.

Recommended reading
Leading Virtually
Ken Blanchard Companies

Making Virtual Teams Work: Ten Basic Principles
Michael Watkins

21 Essential Strategies for Managing Virtual Teams
Rob Rawson, Biz 3.0

The Ultimate Guide to Remote Work
Wade Foster, Zapier

Virtual Teams Versus Face to Face Teams: A Review of Literature
Shikha Gera, IOSR Journal of Business and Management

A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Face-to-Face and Virtual Communication: Overcoming the Challenges
Rebecca Heller, Gap Inc.

Managing Virtual Work Teams
Frankie S. Jones, Ph.D., SHRM

Achieving Excellence, Virtually
Ken Blanchard Companies

Global Training Sought for Leaders of Multicultural Teams
Kathy Gurchiek