Leading Virtual Teams: Best Practice Insights

Recent Australian research shows that leading effective virtual teams does not require a huge investment in technology, but it does require strategies which are fit for purpose and not a carbon copy of face-to-face leadership practices. Intriguingly, virtual teams may experience higher levels of individual contribution and diverse thinking arising from chat, Yammer and polling technology.

As the world of work becomes increasingly global, workers are frequently required to perform as a virtual team. Virtual teaming affords a number of benefits including the opportunity to tap into a global pool of talent and in turn, leverage diverse experiences and perspectives. On the downside, virtual teaming can also be plagued by a number of logistical, technical and socio-emotional challenges including scheduling across time zones and differing cultural norms, expectations, and communication styles. How can leaders of virtual teams address these challenges and ensure diverse team members and stakeholders can work together efficiently and effectively?

thumb_ind_tmt_glb_ho_1948_resize_1024_0Deloitte interviewed Dr Will Felps and MBA student, Virginia Kane, both from the University of New South Wales, Australia, about their recent research on best practice in leading virtual teams.  The researchers found that the rules that apply to face-to-face teams do not necessarily apply to virtual teams. They suggest managers must be more disciplined in their approach to managing virtual teams. This includes ensuring team members make time to bond and set up appropriate team norms, clarify roles, promote individual accountability, regulate team communication and engagement, and choose enabling technology that is fit for purpose.  Critically, they also found that  technology can enhance individual contributions and diverse thinking.

Aim

The research aimed to understand best practice strategies for designing, implementing and incentivising virtual teams.

Method

The authors drew their best practice insights from an in depth review of the academic literature and interviews with 9 experts, whose experience in leading virtual teams spanned telecommunications, technology, education, consumer packaged goods, banking and insurance, mining, transportation and professional service industries. The participants were practitioners who had faced challenges with virtual teaming and had great (and oft-surprising) solutions for leading effective teams.

Findings

The authors identified ten best practice insights for leaders of virtual teams, spanning from how to structure and plan effectively to the strategic value of team connection and over-communication.

Insight # 1: Use technology for divergent thinking, brainstorming, and to take decisive action: Choosing technology that is fit for purpose can help to moderate the impact of personality factors, mask perceived status differences, distribute participation opportunities, and focus attention on the message instead of the messenger.  As shown in the table below, provided by the authors, different technologies can be selected to facilitate certain outcomes and therefore should be chosen with this in mind.

Indeed, some of the most effective teams were those who used technology to draw on the unique insights of individual team members. For example, more introverted team members were more likely to add a point of view in online forums.

Table 1: Examples of effective use of technology for virtual teaming

Team Activity Appropriate communication tool Why it works
Brainstorming and generating alternatives (divergent thinking) Online communities e.g. Yammer or Stormboard Removes time pressure. Allows all V-team members to contribute, regardless of their social presence or influence. Generating ideas independently avoids groupthink and herding effects, and leads to better alternatives.
Making decisions (convergent thinking) Informed decision by leadership, or virtual polls, e.g. Doodle or ADoodle After generating and discussing strong alternatives, (anonymous) voting or further comments can help prevent groupthink and allow V-teams to take decisive action quickly.
Preparing reports Collaboration tools, e.g. Google Documents Allows V-team members to work on the same document simultaneously, see the history of document changes, and keep information in the same place.
Scheduling meetings Online calendar or scheduling, e.g. MeetingWizard This should be simple and as painless as possible. No need to waste human resources on something we know technology can accomplish. However, keep in mind timezones of all team members when providing options.
Building relationships In person, videoconference, telephone (in that order of preference). In person relationship-building is always preferable, but not always possible.

Schedule regular conversations not only with direct reports, but their direct reports.

Sharing “virtual lunches” and adding “catch-up” social time to agendas builds rapport.

Presenting information verbally Video conference or video When interaction is the goal, keep “monologues” to a minimum and use a video conference for real-time discussion. If there is more information to present (use the 3-minutre rule), it should be a video.  Creating a video bank also helps with knowledge management, and bringing new team members up to speed quickly.
Sharing information and updates Internal blog or social network (e.g. Yammer) Some organisations (e.g. Tata Consultancy Services) are de-emphasising email. Instead, they use internal blogs and social networks to share updates and provide an opportunity for V-team members to discuss the content.

Note: There is a new breed of online platforms that bundle together multiple kinds of collaboration tools for use by V-teams. Of these, Slack is currently the most prominent.

Insight # 2: Provide more structure, not less:  Leaders need to be more structured and proactive than they would when managing face-to-face teams. Ways to form effective performance habits include:

  • Initiating discussion of what an excellent outcome would look like.
  • Scheduling who will do what by when.
  • Integrating diverse efforts by being a ‘hub’ of activity.

Insight # 3: Slow down to speed up: Language and cultural differences can create misunderstandings and communication difficulties for virtual teams. This can be addressed by ensuring that teams take time to get to know each other and set group norms during the formation or project kick off stage (e.g., is it ok to be a few minutes late to a conference call?). The use of paraphrasing can help listeners check their understanding of what is being said (or not said).

Insight # 4: Develop a role charter: Lack of accountability can be an issue for virtual teams, particularly when working cross-functionally.  Leaders need to be vigilant about defining and communicating roles in virtual teams to prevent diffusion of responsibility. In addition to this, both team leaders and team members (particularly new members) are recommended to get to know the strengths and capabilities of their virtual team mates.  ‘Capability invisibility’ can lead to situations where individuals are given tasks that they are ill-equipped for or individuals’ useful skills are not fully utilised.

Insight # 5: Relationships take extra time, effort, and money to build: Virtual teams often spend too little time engaging in the types of social conversations that happen naturally when teams are face-to-face.  This can hinder the development of strong team relationships. Simple acts like sending a birthday card, personalising conversations, and recognising contributions can help increase visibility of individuals and build team cohesion.   Regular video calls, particularly when done over meals, can also facilitate relationships. This can take the form of a virtual ‘coffee catch-up’ or virtual team meal (e.g. ’pizza days‘) at regular intervals. However, while virtual team meals can be effective, several interviewees maintained that the most effective way to build relationships and trust is through face-to-face interactions.

Insight # 6: Buddy up: A virtual team that maintains at least two team members at each of its virtual locations provides beneficial social contact to the entire team. Another strategy is to co-locate new members with a senior member of the team until the new person has adapted to the team’s way of working.

Insight # 7: Unmute the distractions: The research also found that encouraging team members not to mute calls fostered a more natural flow of conversation.  Unmuting calls also allows for jokes and shared laughter which fosters team morale and cohesion. The authors pointed out that some background noise (e.g. a barking dog) can be a reminder that people, not machines, are on the line or that a person is joining a call at an odd hour, or even at home wearing their pyjamas.

Insight # 8: Use video technology whenever possible: Related to the above, was the concern of many interviewees that members who dial in on conference calls are not paying attention or do not feel comfortable to share their views.  Video technology allows leaders and team mates to pick up on non-verbal cues such as when a member is trying to have input or agreeing/ disagreeing with what is being said.

Insight # 9: Strategically over-communicate: Another strategy is to ensure that all key conversations happen ‘on the line’ when all team members are present and that side conversations are kept to a minimum. This helps to ensure that team members do not feel out of the loop, which can cause feelings of mistrust.

Insight # 10: Limit boundary permeability and buffer your team: Whilst team members can be added more easily to virtual teams, than to conventional teams, a leader needs to strictly regulate this. New members must be socialised into a team to ensure that team cohesion and trust is maintained. Larger groups can also add to problems with accountability, again necessitating the need to regulate team size.

Implications

Virtual teaming affords an opportunity to increase and leverage cultural and geographic diversity yet comes with a unique set of challenges. This research shows that the challenges of virtual teaming can be overcome through concerted effort and discipline. The researchers highlight 10 best practice strategies managers can apply to drive effective team outcomes in virtual teams, regardless of their teams’ level of ‘virtuality’.

The authors note that virtual teams may enable organisations to better leverage the talent and diversity in their teams when they foster an inclusive virtual environment.  Organisations that optimise the use of virtual teams, by implementing the 10 strategies highlighted here, may be well placed to reap the rewards of a diverse workplace including enhanced innovation and performance.

For further information contact Virginia Kane, University of NSW (virginia.t.kane@gmail.com) or Kathryn Page, Deloitte, kapage@deloitte.com.au

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