I had originally written this blog some time ago; however, as many people around the globe are being forced to work from home, I believe this post might be more relevant than ever. Please note my personal best wishes for the wellbeing of you and your family until the craziness subsides.
Working in Virtual Teams
While much research has been published on why virtual teams fail, fewer publications have demonstrated what works. We present a five-phase model that balances individual contributors, leadership skills, and necessary functional enablers.
What is a Virtual Team?
Virtual teams share three characteristics. First, they are tasked with completing a common objective, meaning that there is a business need for the team to be assembled. Second, team members are dispersed in different geographical locations or working from home.
Normally, we only think about dispersed team members located in different cities or in different time zones around the world. In recent days, we also accept that panic and fear force dispersion for workers. Any barrier to face-to-face communication results in a dispersed team. For instance, team members located on different floors of the same building face barriers in face-to-face communication. They must take an elevator or climb a flight of stairs to meet. A chance interaction at the coffee pot or water cooler (do we still have these privileges?) is greatly reduced, even though these team members are theoretically “co-located”.
Barriers to face-to-face communication reduce opportunistic social interactions, and decrease chances of random idea exchange and collaboration that lead to enhanced creative problem-solving.
Finally, virtual teams conduct most of their communication by electronic technology. Of course, many people today (especially millennials) choose to communicate through technology – texting instead of talking. But in the case of a virtual team, electronic communication is the primary means of communication due to separation, distance, and time differences.
Improving Virtual Team Performance
The five-phase model to improve virtual team behaviors and to lead to enhanced performance includes:
- Initiation and structure,
- Methods of communication,
- Meetings and protocols,
- Knowledge management, and
Each foundational building block includes two or three specific tools, actions, or checklists that support the effectiveness of a virtual team. For example, communication includes a recommended tool, a common practice, and a leadership action to get real results in virtual team performance.
Why Do We Need a Model for Virtual Teams?
Models help to frame the context and solution to problems. Moreover, training participants in a given model establishes a common framework and provides clear expectations for team behaviors and performance.
We recommend training virtual teams on the five-stage model at the earliest group meetings. One of the recommendations for a virtual project than is to hold a face-to-face meeting to ensure a common understanding. The face-to-face kick-off meeting is also a time to develop special technical skills and team behaviors. Technical training may include project management skills, software applications, and new product development processes. Team training should include communication, leadership, and knowledge management.
Projects are measured by their critical success factors determined during project initiation. Likewise, virtual teams should be measured by team behaviors and metrics that are established for success of the team’s activities. Virtual teams must have team metrics in order to support teamwork.
Many companies speak about teamwork but will evaluate employees on individual performance metrics. The only way to enforce team behaviors is to include team measures in employee evaluations. This is especially important for virtual teams in which a large amount of work is conducted independently and in isolation from others. Such performance measure are a part of the Meetings and Protocols arena of the five-phase virtual team model (VTM).
Identifying Virtual Team Members
Selecting team members to serve on a virtual team will be addressed in greater detail in a future post. For now, however, be aware that virtual team members must have a different set of characteristics than those working in traditional, co-located teams.
First, virtual team members must demonstrate technical expertise. One of the benefits of a virtual team is an ability to access technical experts regardless of their location. Unique cultural, professional, and personal experiences yield a variety of perspectives that are advantageous to selecting technical expert talent on a virtual team.
Next, virtual team members require a higher degree of self-sufficiency, self-motivation, and emotional intelligence than traditional team members. Team members may work in isolation without day-to-day routines or schedules. Self-directed leadership is required for successful task completion.
Finally, dispersed team members should be skilled at operating within a virtual environment. While they may not be computer wizards themselves, virtual team members must be tech-savvy in order to best utilize communication tools and shared knowledge to accomplish project work.
Learn How to Improve Virtual Team Performance
You can improve the performance of a virtual team by using the five-phase Virtual Team Model: initiation and structure, communication, meetings and protocols, knowledge management, and leadership. Learn how to improve your team’s performance in our online Virtual Team course. Find out more here and register here. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for questions/comments.
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