Effective Virtual Teams in the Workplace

Carrying on from our article on Effective Leadership Teams in the Workplace, this article examines the growth area of virtual teams and the particular challenges these team structures face. In the second of our series on effective teams in the workplace, this article highlights the critical challenges of effective virtual teams in the workplace and steps that you can put in place to minimise or avoid these effects.

What is a Virtual Team? 

A virtual team is one whose members cannot organise in the traditional format of a shared location with frequent face-to-face communication.  Instead, virtual teams may be spread over diverse geographical areas.  Team members may often operate different work shifts and patterns or work on projects unconnected to other team members. 

Challenges to Virtual Team Success

In addition to the normal challenges teams face, virtual teams face additional issues with distance and time. Several authors in this field of virtual team structures, including Richard Lepsinger and Darleen DeRosa (in their book Virtual Team Success: A Practical Guide for Working and Leading from a Distance), highlight some unique challenges for virtual teams.

Lack of Face to Face Contact With Team Members

The dispersal of team members can lead to a lack of a team feeling through members sensing they are just a collection of distributed individuals. This, in turn, can quickly lead to team disconnection and members working in different directions.

Troubleshooting Tip: creating a sense of the whole is one of the biggest challenges facing a virtual team. Traditional teams develop a shared image of themselves through regular face to face contact in team meetings, project groups and social activities. Virtual teams lack these images and thus need other strategies to create a sense of the whole.  According to Kimball and Eunice, this sense of whole can be made by such things as:

  • making sure there is a team photograph and everyone has a copy (where a photograph is not possible make a collage out of individual pictures); 
  • distribute a map showing where each team member is located; and
  • creating a graphic that shows the name of each team member sitting at a place around a table. This generates a better feeling of the whole than simply creating a list of team members 

Failing to Provide a Line of Sight

Failing to provide a line of sight to what is happening in the broader organisation leave virtual team members with the sense that they do not know what is going on around and above them.  This leads to a feeling of detachment from the organisation and reduces effectiveness. 

Troubleshooting tip: team members need more than the minutes of meetings passed onto them; they need to understand the stories, the feel of what is happening, the background, the sense of emotions involved which they would gather if they were direct participants or spectators. Kimball and Eunice suggest three activities to do this:

  • create journalism style reports on meetings and publish the rest of the team (including photos where possible); 
  • encourage people to acknowledge who is missing in the room at the beginning of meetings and develop conscious strategies to connect these members in the process;
  • create a virtual water cooler, a space in the electronic system for informal swapping of stories and feelings about what is happening as well as task orientated messages; and
  • in addition try using video conferencing facilities if they are available 
Effective Virtual Teams in the Workplace

Low Level Conversations

Much of team success is dependant on an exchange of diverse and complex conversations about topics ranging from routine tasks to significant strategies. Many of these can take place on an informal basis over lunch. Virtual teams, however, often concentrate their communication on logistical details and administrative matters to the detriment of wider rich conversation. 

Troubleshooting tip: hold regular telephone conferences that can be described as after-dinner talk, which stimulate wider team conversation.  Back these up with technology-driven debates using some discussion on non-routine matters where possible get other organisation members to engage in these debates. Try to get the whole team to meet face-to-face with one another from time to time. 

Common Purpose

Failure to agree on a common purpose for a virtual team often means that members work towards different priorities or towards ends that have more to do with the individual than the task or team. The very nature of them being a distributed team means that it is easier for members to pull in different directions without being noticed quickly. 

Troubleshooting tip: spend time agreeing and articulating a common purpose to act as a reference point for future discussions. Use a variety of communication methods to reinforce the message continually. 

Low Energy

Members in traditional teams often drive energy from the daily interaction with colleagues. Virtual team members can suffer from a lack of energy by being isolated from what is happening in the business. 

Troubleshooting tip: find ways to spotlight individuals or part of the team where something interesting is happening.  Develop a norm and standard of sending hot news bulletins to the team with members agreeing to respond.  Think of ways to celebrate success through using technology. 

Ten Steps for Creating Successful Virtual Teams 

To avoid or at least minimise the challenges identified above, a virtual team manager can take steps to create a more cohesive team environment to facilitate a more effective team. Ten steps that could aid in this objective include:

  1. agreeing and continually reinforcing a common purpose;
  2. inter-team communicating is the responsibility of the whole team;
  3. team image is built by using a broad range of communication methods available to give a sense of the team as a whole; 
  4. communication is not just about logistics and administration but strategy and development; 
  5. using technology to bring the team together – group emails, teleconferencing, video conferencing, discussion databases etc; 
  6. the team leader provides the team with a clear line of sight to the bigger organisation; 
  7. honesty and openness amongst members is a team norm by which members can communicate how they feel;
  8. the holding of regular reviews (face to face if possible) to assess team effectiveness;
  9. agreeing roles and responsibilities of virtual team members; and
  10. celebrating success and sharing the limelight.

Like all of our articles, we always welcome your feedback and comments.

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