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"Armed with laptops, Wi-Fi, and mobile phones, most professionals can do their jobs from anywhere." Keith Farrazzi, CEO of research institute and strategic consulting firm, Ferrazzi Greenlight

From offices spread across the globe to homes to libraries to coffee shops, the 21st century workforce is increasingly far-flung -and results are equally all over the map. Virtual teams have the potential to dramatically improve productivity. Or to stymie progress! To work, teams need to feel that, while separated by geography and time, they are united by shared organizational culture, values, and goals. As a leader, how can you nurture teams whose commitment transcends time and place?

Do Virtual Teams Work?

Sir Richard Branson once said, "In 30 years time, as technology moves forward even further, people are going to look back and wonder why offices ever existed." While he may well be right, we have a ways to go before we reach that point. Virtual teams have to overcome significant challenges, chiefly their ability to produce consistent results.

In their pioneering study of 70 virtual teams, Professors Vijay Govindarajan and Anil K. Gupta found that only 18 percent reported their performance was "highly successful." Eighty-two percent said they did not meet their intended goals.

In "The Untapped Potential of Virtual Teams" study, Siemens Enterprise Communications revealed that 79 percent of respondents always or frequently work in "distributed teams." However, less than half (44 percent) thought they were as productive as face-to-face teamwork.

At the same time, some organizations have managed to build virtual teams that not only work, but that work better than co-located teams.

An MIT Sloan study by Frank Siebdrat, Martin Hoegl, and Holger Ernst found that "with the appropriate processes in place,

dispersed teams can significantly outperform their co-located counterparts." And Chad Thompson, senior consultant with Aon Hewitt, says that virtual teams can improve productivity by up to 43 percent.

So, the question becomes, what makes the difference between virtual teams that tank and those that thrive?

Getting Virtual Teams Right

Keith Ferrazzi, CEO of research institute and strategic consulting firm Ferrazzi Greenlight, argues that there are four "must-haves" for creating and leading effective virtual teams. Get these right - and you'll see the results you, and your organization, need.

Must-Have #1. The Right Team

Virtual teams can lead organizations to greater productivity, innovation, and profitability, but, as Ferrazzi says, "putting together a great team is tricky." Without carefully considering the composition, size, and structure of your team, you're throwing a diverse group of individuals together without any glue. A team that is "put together to slash costs is not only dysfunctional, it is a drain on your bottom line."

The following pieces need to come together to form a cohesive team:


Teams that incorporate a diversity of skills, experiences, and backgrounds are typically more successful than homogenous groups. That being said, there are certain traits that make some folks ideal candidates for virtual teams:

  • Effective communication skills.
  • High level of emotional intelligence (EQ).
  • Ability to work independently.
  • Resiliency in the face of inevitable chaos.
  • Awareness of and sensitivity to other cultures.

Before selecting team members, use diagnostic tools to assess their strengths and weaknesses. There are many choices (HBDI-Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument, MBTI-Myers-Briggs and BestWorkDATA are examples) and you can use behavioral interviews to unearth areas in which they excel and those on which they need to work.

Size. What happens if you have a group of 30 people? Maybe 15 do the work, while the other half "float." This is one reason why teams with 13 or more members are the worst performers. A smaller team allows for greater accountability, tighter communication, and more engagement. Keep it under 10, and if possible, limit team size to four or five.

Roles/Structure. When it's not possible to limit involvement to four or five, and team members come from various departments, it's helpful to create sub-teams that operate on three different tiers:

  • Core. The core is comprised of the executives who guide strategy.
  • Operational. These are the people who lead and make decisions about day-to-day work.
  • Outer. This tier, made up of temporary, part-time, and as-needed members, is responsible for specific aspects of the project and offer specialized knowledge.

These sub-teams can narrow their focus and apply their expertise to their portion of the project. Again, the small size facilitates greater responsibility and communication.

Must-Have #2: The Right Leadership

Whether you have led virtual teams in the past or this is your first experience, you can increase your chances of success by practicing these key behaviors:

  • Fostering Trust. In co-located teams, trust is built largely through incidental and nonverbal communications. Coworkers bump into each other in the hallway, sit down for a coffee break, or grab lunch together. Virtual teams don't have those luxuries, so you must be doubly conscious of creating them.

  • Ask team members to describe themselves, their background, and their skills to the rest of the team. Before conference or video calls, ask everyone to share a quick story about their work - a success, a challenge. You can also use technology - from information hubs to forums - to decrease isolation and build trust.
  • Encouraging Open Dialogue. Emphasize and model candor. Encourage members to bring the "unsaid" into the conversation, to criticize respectfully and appropriately, and to confront issues before they spiral into conflict. An excellent book to help you... Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott.
  • Clarifying Goals and Guidelines. Take care to explain your vision and goals for the team and articulate how each member contributes. Provide specific guidelines and set expectations to reduce uncertainty, build trust, and boost productivity.

Leaders make or break virtual teams; these steps are not negotiable. If you want an effective team, hone these behaviors.

Must-Have #3: The Right Touchpoints

Technology enables virtual teams to act as one - no matter where they are. But there's no denying the tremendous benefits to face-to-face meetings (or, if that's not feasible, at least video conferences). They build trust, establish rapport, and produce enhanced results. When should you have these meetings?

  • Kickoff. Take this opportunity to introduce team members, set expectations, clarify goals and guidelines, and establish "swift trust" so the group can work together effectively without an extensive "getting to know you" process.
  • Onboarding. Invite new members to an in-person meeting with you and other key players. At the very least, video chat with them to welcome them, explain guidelines, tell them about the team, and answer questions. It's helpful to provide them with a mentor who they can contact for support and guidance as well.
  • Milestones. Mark milestones face-to-face to maintain momentum, decrease feelings of isolation, and, last but not the least, celebrate!

It's not always feasible to gather virtual teams in the same location; when it is, though, take full advantage.

Must-Have #4: The Right Technology

There's no getting around it: if you want virtual teams to succeed, they must have the tools to do so. These include:

  • Conference calling.
  • Direct calling.
  • Text messaging.
  • Forums or virtual "hangouts."

As Michael Watkin points out in "Making Virtual Teams Work: 10 Key Principles," "selecting the 'best' technologies does not necessarily mean going with the newest or most feature-laden." Members need to connect quickly, conveniently, and comfortably. (Which means don't discount good old email or one-on-one phone calls!)

Putting It All Together

By putting these "must-haves" into action, you can create a national or global team that works as - or more - effectively than a group who look at each other across their desks every day. And not only can you, you need to in order to survive and thrive in a global economy. Your most important role as a virtual team leader is to erase borders and boundaries. Get started.


Larry Hart

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