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Building a More Successful Virtual Team

written by: N Nayab•edited by: Jean Scheid•updated: 7/25/2011

A virtual team spread over time and space faces many limitations such as coordination and communication issues, and minimal interaction and involvement of team members. How can a virtual team be successful despite such limitations?

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    Physical Infrastructure

    How Can a Virtual Team be Successful The primary challenge for the successful working of a virtual team is ensuring team members stay connected and always in the loop. Some ideas include:

    • Equip team members with state of the art and seamless computing devices such as 3G enabled smartphones, powerful laptops with videoconferencing enabled, and more.
    • Install standard email and voice chat applications in such devices to ensure smooth connectivity without the user having to spend time configuring or changing settings every time.
    • Make available standard and platform independent software across devices. Failure to do so may mean, for example, one team member on a laptop not able to open a file transmitted by another team member using a symbian powered mobile phone. Even without such platform related issues, one team member having MS-Word 97 that can open only .doc files and another team member having the latest version that sends out .docx files would mean the user with MS-Word 97 will be unable to open attachments sent by other team members without the hassle of converting such files first.
    • Ensure adequate security, especially for mobile smartphones. Installing applications such as Cell Sniper that auto-notifies other team members of the GPS coordinates of the phone in the eventuality a thief tries to change the SIM card, and also allows remote locking and erasing of data in the eventuality of a theft.
    • White list team members to prevent strong firewalls from blocking files sent by one team member to another

    Investment in technology is the basic requirement for success of a virtual team. Setting up a virtual team without making allowances for the latest hardware and software will invariably cause much communication and coordination issues that impede team performance.

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    The robust infrastructure requires reinforcement through a good communication policy that makes dissemination of information among team members easy. A good policy decentralizes communication, with each member of the team allowed to contact any other, or initiate a message or discussion, and other members obliged to respond within a set time. For instance, any member could initiate a document, and each member could return the same with annotations within a set time, with the team leader acting as the coordinator. It also sets rules and procedures to manage documents, especially for version control.

    A good policy mandates regular meetings and updates, just as done with traditional non-virtual teams, but unlike the non-virtual team where team meetings serve as a hub or repository where team members input information, the virtual team should have platforms and mechanisms that allow team members to connect to information directly. Lack of clarity plagues most virtual teams, and a comprehensive policy can overcome this drawback.

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    The technical elements notwithstanding, a successful virtual team requires good leadership skills. A virtual team lacks hierarchy, unofficial power equations, or even visual cues that manifest in traditional non-virtual team meetings. In virtual teams, team members may never meet face-to-face and this leads to lack of involvement, with a “get over with it mentality,” clinical rather than insightful discussions, and some team members hoping for a free ride without a supervisor or team leader breathing down his neck. A few members may dominate and without any motivators, other members may remain content to allow them to do so. Mutual trust becomes hard to establish, and even when established, it's hard to sustain. In such a scenario, the team leader requires some unique skills and competence to steer the team, establish a culture of collaboration, and get things done.

    A virtual team is invariably flat in structure, and very often matrix, with team members involved in both a local team and a virtual team. Team leaders need to understand this fact and adopt a connect-to-collaborate style wherein they act as facilitators to spurn creativity and healthy discussions, rather than adopt the traditional command-and-directive style wherein they control the proceedings. They also need to establish an expertise based trust with different team members by allocating and requesting work based on their competence and accustomed to work style.

    A virtual team radiates cognitive diversity and various styles in a much bigger way than traditional teams do. When properly managed, this increases productivity, but poorly managed team fuels conflicts owing to different priorities and perspectives developing, eventually leading to a dysfunctional team.

    In a virtual team with faceless interaction, some members express themselves visually, others express themselves better in writing, and others do not express unless specifically asked to do so. Being geographically apart, very often across continents, different team members would have different standards of work ethics, method of giving feedback, documentation, and sharing ideas. The answer to how can virtual teams be successful very often depends on how the team leader understands these diverse styles and extracts the most out of each team member.

    Virtual teams traditionally remain at a disadvantage owing to the difficulties in communication and coordination. Proper intervention that leverages technology and good leadership removes much of these disadvantages and even ensures virtual teams deliver much better productive output compared to traditional non-virtual teams.

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    1. Forbes. “Managing an A-Team of Far-flung Experts Requires Special Leadership Tactics.” Retrieved July 22, 2011.
    2. SHRM India. “Global and Virtual Teaming.” Retrieved July 22, 2011.
    3. Wing Lam, Alton Chua & Jeremy B. Williams. “Real Problems with Virtual Teams: an Analysis of the Factors leading toDysfunctional Online Collaboration.” Retrieved July 22, 2011.

    Image Credit: Mohan