Virtual Teams

Keith Ferrazzi. Managing Yourself: Getting Virtual Teams Right. Harvard Business Review. December 2014.

„ «Virtual» teams – ones made up of people in different physical locations – are on the rise. […] Employees can manage their work and personal lives more flexibly, and they have the opportunity to interact with colleagues around the world. Companies can use the best and lowest‑cost global talent and significantly reduce their real estate costs. ”

„But virtual teams are hard to get right.
In their seminal 2001 study of 70 such groups, professors Vijay Govindarajan and Anil Gupta found that 82% fell short of their goals and 33% rated themselves as largely unsuccessful.
A 2005 Deloitte study of IT projects outsourced to virtual work groups found that 66% failed to satisfy the clients’ requirements.
[…] in our research, we’ve discovered that most people consider virtual communication less productive than face‑to‑face interaction, and nearly half admit to feeling confused and overwhelmed by collaboration technology.”

There is good news, however.
A 2009 study of 80 global software teams by authors from BCG and WHU‑Otto Beisheim School of Management indicates that well‑managed dispersed teams can actually outperform those that share office space.
Similarly, an Aon Consulting report noted that using virtual teams can improve employee productivity; some organizations have seen gains of up to 43%.”

„[…] through our research and our experience helping organizations navigate collaboration challenges, we’ve concluded that there are four must‑haves:
• the right team,
• the right leadership,
• the right touchpoints, and
• the right technology.”

The Right Team
Team composition should be your starting point. You won’t get anywhere without hiring (or developing) people suited to virtual teamwork, putting them into groups of the right size, and dividing the labor appropriately.
People. […] successful virtual team players all have a few things in common: good communication skills, high emotional intelligence, an ability to work independently, and the resilience to recover from the snafus that inevitably arise. Awareness of and sensitivity to other cultures is also important in global groups. […]
Size. […] the most effective virtual teams are small ones – fewer than 10 people. OnPoint Consulting’s research supports this: Of the virtual teams the firm studied, the worst performers had 13 members or more.
« Social loafing» is one cause. Research shows that team members reduce effort when they feel less responsible for output. The effect kicks in when teams exceed four or five members.
As groups grow, another challenge is ensuring inclusive communication. The late Harvard psychology professor Richard Hackman noted that it takes only 10 conversations for every person on a team of five to touch base with everyone else, but that number rises to 78 for a team of 13. […]
Roles. When projects require the efforts of multiple people from various departments, we devise appropriate sub‑teams. ”

The Right Leadership
A recent study of engineering groups showed that the best predictor of success for managers leading dispersed teams is experience doing it before. That said, we’ve seen even novices excel by practicing some key behaviors that, while also critical in face‑to‑face settings, must be amplified in virtual ones:
Fostering trust. Trust starts with respect and empathy. So, early on, leaders should encourage team members to describe their backgrounds, the value they hope to add to the group, and the way they prefer to work. Another practice, utilized by Tony Hsieh and Jenn Lim at their entirely virtual organization, Delivering Happiness, is to ask new hires to give video tours of their workspaces. This allows colleagues to form mental images of one another when they’re later communicating by e‑mail, phone, or text message. […] Try taking five minutes at the beginning of conference calls for everyone to share a recent professional success or some personal news. This is probably the easiest way to overcome the isolation that can creep in when people don’t work together physically.
Encouraging open dialogue.
[…] leaders of dispersed groups, in particular, must push members to be frank with one another. One way to do this is by modeling « caring criticism». When delivering negative feedback, use phrases like « I might suggest» and « Think about this. « When receiving such feedback, thank the person who offered it and confirm points of agreement. A tactic for conference calls is to designate one team member to act as the official advocate for candor – noticing and speaking up when something is being left unsaid and calling out criticism that’s not constructive.
On the flip side, you should also occasionally recognize people for practices that improve team communication and collaboration.
Clarifying goals and guidelines. […] Explain to everyone why you are coming together and what benefits will result, and then keep reiterating the message.
Specific guidelines for team interaction are equally vital; research shows that rules reduce uncertainty and enhance trust in social groups, thereby improving productivity.
Agree on how quickly team members should respond to queries and requests from one another, and outline follow‑up steps if someone is slow to act. Virtual teammates often find themselves saying, « I thought it was obvious that…» or «I didn’t think I needed to spell that out. » So also insist that requests be specific. Instead of saying « Circle back to me, » state whether you want to give final input on a decision or simply be informed after the decision is made. If you have a conference call about project details, follow up with an e‑mail to minimize misunderstandings.
Also make it clear that multitasking on calls isn’t OK. According to a recent study, 82% of people admit to doing other things – from surfing the web to using the bathroom – during team calls. ”

The Right Touchpoints
Virtual teams should come together in person at certain times. Here are the stages at which it’s most critical:
Kickoff. An initial meeting, face‑to‑face if possible and using video if not, will go a long way toward introducing teammates, setting expectations for trust and candor, and clarifying team goals and behavioral guidelines. […] Onboarding. Too often, plans for bringing new people onto a virtual team consist of a short e‑mail or conference‑call introduction to the rest of the group and a dozen or more documents that the newcomers are supposed to read and digest. A much better approach is to give them the same in‑person welcome you gave the group. Fly them into headquarters or another location to meet with you and others who will be important to their success. Encourage them to videoconference with the rest of their teammates. We also recommend pairing newcomers with a mentor who can answer questions quickly but personally – the equivalent of a friendly colleague with an office around the corner.
Milestones. Virtual team leaders need to continually motivate members to deliver their best, but e‑mail updates and weekly conference calls are not enough to sustain momentum.
In the absence of visual cues and body language, misunderstandings often arise, especially on larger teams. Team members begin to feel disconnected and less engaged, and their contributions to the project decline. So get people together to celebrate the achievement of short‑term goals or to crack tough problems. ”

The Right Technology
In our experience, even top‑notch virtual teams – those with the most‑talented workers, the finest leadership, and frequent touchpoints – can be felled by poor technology. We recommend using platforms that integrate all types of communication and include these key components:
Conference calling. Look for systems that don’t require access codes (helpful for team members who are driving) but do record automatically or with a single click and facilitate or automate transcription.
The best systems even help monitor the time that each individual spends talking versus listening. Also consider one‑on‑one and group videoconferencing, since visual cues help establish empathy and trust.
Direct calling and text messaging. By supporting real‑time conversation between two remote participants, direct calls are one of the simplest and most powerful tools in the arsenal. […]
Discussion forums or virtual team rooms. Software ranging from Microsoft SharePoint to Moot allows team members to present issues to the entire group, for colleagues to study or comment on when they have time. Scholars refer to this sort of collaboration as « messy talk» and say it’s critical for completing complex projects. […] All interaction is documented and therefore becomes a searchable database. […]
John Stepper, a managing director at Deutsche Bank, created the bank’s Communities of Practice electronic discussion forums, in which 100,000 employees now converse with colleagues in similar roles around the world. Stepper calls this collaboration «working out loud. » All the activity is open and searchable, making it easy for existing teams to find subject‑matter experts or review their own work and for ad hoc teams to form around business‑related passions. ”