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Successful virtual teams share these qualities

Virtual teams operate differently.
Virtual teams operate differently.
Image: REUTERS/Steven Saphore
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I am a member of four virtual teams. My colleagues and I correspond by email, text, Gchat, and Slack. We live mostly in the US, but some of us are in Australia, India, and the U.K. I have never met most of these people in person, and I may never do so.

By the end of this decade, organizations will integrate virtual teams into most departmental operations.

However, just because you hire a team residing outside your headquarters and provide its members with equipment and access doesn’t mean the team will automatically work as efficiently as it would if everyone lived on a cubicle farm. This is a dangerous assumption. In order for a virtual team to be successful, its members need to meet the following criteria:

  • Highly effective virtual teams are comprised of employees with the “Three A’s”: assertiveness, accountability, and ability to work independently. Team members take responsibility for getting their work done and know when and how to speak up with concerns and suggestions. Because solid results are ensured, they possess a certain degree of flexibility.
  • Highly effective virtual teams comprehend expectations. Roles and responsibilities, as well as team rules and protocols, are tightly defined. Team members know how to arrange a meeting in another time zone, how to escalate an issue, and how to get in touch with a colleague about a time-sensitive issue. Feedback is clearly communicated. Assumptions do not exist.
  • Highly effective virtual teams are infused with relevant technology. Team members have access to the most sophisticated collaboration tools so that project work is efficient and seamless. They make use of instant messaging, videoconferencing and social networks to converse in real time.
  • Highly effective virtual teams are familiar with the in-person dynamic. Ideally, team members have met each other in person more than once in both a business and social setting. Although not always feasible, a single in-person gathering makes it much more likely that employees will trust and like each other.
  • Highly effective virtual teams have a visible manager. Team members are more engaged, more productive, and less stressed when they see their manager in the flesh from time to time. They know what their manager is working on and are well-informed about how team activities impact the organization’s bottom line.
  • Highly effective virtual teams build and maintain solid relationships. Team members understand how important it is to jump on the phone and talk through conflicts, and to learn about their virtual colleagues as people. Especially with a new team or new hire, the buddy system is helpful in igniting bonds.
  • Highly effective virtual teams run great meetings. Agendas are sent out in advance. Team members are punctual because they know the meeting will be short and productive. Discussion time is built in to allow for input and consensus. Sensible ground rules–like reducing ambient noise–keep the group focused and on track.

Here’s something surprising: The most effective virtual team members are…strong typists? You read that correctly. A 2017 study from the University of Iowa and published in Leadership Quarterly and on the university’s website found that to the fast typist go the virtual team leadership spoils. “Individuals who can type faster are able to more quickly communicate their thoughts and drive the direction of a team in a collaborative work setting, whereas individuals with lower abilities lag behind their counterparts,” said Greg Stewart, professor of management and organizations in the UI’s Tippie College of Business and co-author of the study.

In the study, the research team conducted an experiment that divided 344 participants into four-member teams. Some teams separated all four members into different rooms; some had two in one room, two in another; while some had three in one room and one in another, etc. Each member then played the role of the leadership team of a Hollywood studio deciding which of several scripts to produce, based on various marketing studies they read. Unless they were in the same room together, the team members communicated only by texting with a computer.

After the experiment, the participants completed a questionnaire, at which time they were asked to rate the leadership ability of their colleagues. The survey found that typing ability was positively related to leadership perceptions. Individuals who could type well—taking into account both speed and accuracy—were more likely to emerge as leaders within the experiment. The study also found that physical presence played a role in leadership scores, as team members tended to give higher scores to members who were in a room with them than members in other locations. The exception was on teams where members were fully dispersed in separate locations, in which case location had no effect on a person’s leadership score.

Just as with flexwork, leaders should actively measure the productivity of their virtual teams. The usual management metrics of organizational KPIs (key performance indicators), team targets, individual goals, and defined processes and procedures are equally appropriate for virtual teams.

However, it’s probably a good idea to take a close look at metrics related to communication specifically, since this can be a downfall of virtual teams. An article in HRM Asia, for instance, recommended that leaders track the percentage of meetings held by videoconference, since quality of decision-making is reduced when team members multi-task during calls. You can also measure time spent on each discussion item during status calls, or number of communication touch-points from the team leader to each member over the course of a project.

Virtual teams don’t operate the same way as in-office ones, but if you set up and maintain them properly, they can be just as effective.

Alexandra Levit is the author of the new book Humanity Works: Merging Technologies and People for the Workforce of the Future.