Leading virtual teams to success

Despite the movement towards virtual teams, there are many questions that remain unanswered.

Many questions that, if we are to fully benefit from virtual teams, we should be working to understand. This article explores how best to motivate, engage and create a high-performing virtual team.

Janki Kanabar, Graduate Consultant for talent management company Cubiks UK

Janki Kanabar

Graduate Consultant

LinkedIn

 “Virtual teams are here, and they are here to stay.”— Bell and Kozlowski (2002)


Unsurprisingly, almost two decades later, a 2018 global survey revealed that 89% of respondents work in a virtual team that is at least somewhat (32%) or extremely (56%) critical to their role. As companies engage with globalisation and digitalisation, collaborating with others across a physical distance is becoming more common. Virtual teams seem to benefit everyone; employees enjoy flexibility and employers can benefit from expert knowledge held by individuals all over the globe.
Despite the movement towards virtual teams, there are many questions that remain unanswered. Many questions that, if we are to fully benefit from virtual teams, we should be working to understand.

 

What are virtual teams?

First and foremost, we need to understand what we’re referring to when we say ‘virtual teams’. Does it refer to teams that are solely virtual and have never had face-to-face interaction? Or, does it refer to those teams that sometimes use digital platforms to interact when working remotely? The truth is, researchers are still to agree on an all-encompassing definition of ‘virtual teams’. Most definitions share three key characteristics:

  1. A virtual team is a functioning team – the individuals involved share interdependence and mutual accountability to achieve a common goal.
  2. The individuals involved are dispersed.
  3. Virtual teams rely on technology to communicate and collaborate. Importantly, these teams lay on a continuum that defines their level of ‘virtuality’ (from using no virtual tools to solely using virtual tools for communication).

These characteristics help understand the boundaries within which we speak about virtual teams but it is clear that as these teams become the norm we need to understand how to work with teams that fit along the spectrum of virtual teamworking.

 

How do you manage virtual teams?

A recent global survey revealed that 96% of team leaders think they are effective in leading global virtual teams whilst only 58% of team members feel that their leaders are effective in managing them. This is worrying.

To maximise virtual team performance and benefit from the advantages it can bring, such as knowledge sharing, they need to be managed effectively. Leaders need to develop the digital dexterity to drive teamwork, virtually track performance and identify how individuals’ strengths can help each other in their team.

Leaders also need to learn how to meet their team’s innate psychological need for social interaction in a virtual manner; this is not always easy. Naturally, it is more difficult for virtual team members to establish rapport and trust but there are some things leaders can do to help the team perform well:

Leaders need to develop the digital dexterity to drive teamwork, virtually track performance and identify how individuals’ strengths can help each other in their team.

1.    Hire the right people

During the recruitment process take time to understand how the individual prefers to work. There may be some people more suited to remote working than others and by exploring this before hiring them you can reduce turnover and maximise productivity from the outset but more importantly, you can make sure that your team is engaged and happy. Using personality assessments to explore factors such as an individual’s need to work closely with others, belong to a team and other role specific needs and preferences can be an effective way to understand how suited they are to remote team working.

2.    Meet your team in person

I know this defies the concept of a virtual team and may not be possible for all companies operating with a small budget but if possible, meeting in person can help relationships flourish. Even if it’s only twice a year, seeing other team members in person can reinforce the importance of an individual’s role in a team of other ‘real’ people. Establishing accountability may also serve to increase motivation and productivity in your team, as people will likely be less inclined to let colleagues down that they’ve met in person, opposed to those who are just a ‘voice’ on email or Skype.

3.    Manage expectations

It is important to be clear that working as a virtual team is different from working with people in close physical proximity. Be sure to clearly define roles and share a team vision and strategy. Studies predict that over half of virtual teams will fail to meet their strategic or operational objectives because of a manager’s inability to lead a disrupted workforce.

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4.   Don’t forget to keep your biases in check!

Working with a global team creates the inevitability of individual and cultural differences that need to be managed effectively to minimise miscommunications. It is important for managers to recognise that they are distant from the local context of their team member. This distance, and so lack of situational knowledge, could naturally result in managers overestimating the role of personality over situational explanations for a virtual team member’s behaviour. Consequently, managers may be distracted from identifying the root cause of issues and this may prevent them from modifying practices to avoid reoccurrences. Managing this can be as simple as being aware of your biases and ensuring that you’re challenging your preconceptions. Also, actively look for situational evidence to allow yourself to get a full picture of what is happening.

Where do we go from here?

Despite some of their challenges, it is evident that virtual teams are here and that they are not going anywhere, they may possibly even become more popular. And with good reason, virtual teams allow businesses to capitalise on the knowledge, skills and abilities of employees around the globe. This article has touched on some ways that potential issues can be managed. It is important to remember that every virtual team is different and so comes with its own strengths and development areas, and therefore its own unique set of challenges and development opportunities.
As a manager it is crucial to be fair, honest and curious about your team members; these fundamental qualities are key in managing virtual team members’ needs, which must be tailored just as you would for a non-virtual team.


If you would like to further discuss some of these challenges and solutions, or if you’d like a copy of the sources used when writing this article, please get in touch at janki.kanabar@cubiks.com or complete the form below.

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