Create a Successful Virtual Team: Six Lessons

How can CUs ensure their virtual teams produce the desired results?

February 17, 2011

The office of the future might not be an office at all.

As virtual teams become more prevalent, “going to work” increasingly will mean logging into work remotely or collaborating with people in different physical locations.

But too often, say authors Darleen DeRosa and Rick Lepsinger, these virtual teams fail to succeed because managers treat them the same as they do teams that share the same physical location.

Subscribe to Credit Union Magazine“That doesn’t work,” says DeRosa, who coauthored “Virtual Team Success: A Practical Guide for Working and Leading from a Distance,” with Lepsinger. “Virtual teams and face-to-face teams are the proverbial ‘apples and oranges.’ Leaders who recognize this fact are the ones whose teams succeed.”

The authors studied 48 virtual teams to understand why some virtual teams succeed and others don’t. They found that unsuccessful virtual teams regularly fall victim to four pitfalls:

1. Lack of clear goals, direction, or priorities. Because it’s harder to communicate with and inform team members who are geographically dispersed, it’s often difficult to keep all team members focused on the same goals, especially over time.

2. Lack of clear roles among team members. In virtual teams, it’s especially important for team members to understand their individual roles and how their work affects other team members.

3. Lack of cooperation and trust. It’s harder to establish trust and relationships in a virtual environment. Over time, lack of collaboration can lead to a lack of trust among team members.

4. Lack of engagement. People can become bored and “check out” when there’s no dynamic, face-to-face interaction.

Eliminate these pitfalls and a team’s chances for success greatly increase. DeRosa and Lepsinger identify six lessons—excerpted from the book—for creating successful virtual teams.

Next: Six ways to create successful virtual teams

1. Focus on people issues

Creating successful teams depends largely on team member interaction. Virtual teams must to compensate for the inherent lack of human contact by supporting team spirit, trust, and productivity.

They can do so by:

  • Developing a team web page where virtual team members can share information and get to know each other;
  • Creating ways for team members to interact and communicate informally. Use real-time communication tools such as instant messaging or social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter to create a virtual water cooler;
  • Building a collective online “resource bank” to share information and experiences;
  • Finding ways to “spotlight” team members;
  • Send electronic newsletters or updates to the team; and
  • Celebrating team successes.

2. Create trust

Task-based trust differentiates top-performing teams. Establish trust by bringing team members together face-to-face early on in the team’s formation. Devote part of this meeting to building relationships and learning about team members’ capabilities.

Other ways to build trust:

  • Empower team members to make and act on decisions.
  • Help people manage conflicts, not avoid them. Conflict that isn’t addressed may escalate.
  • Choose a team leader that models and reinforces these positive behaviors.

3. Embrace ‘soft’ skills

Lepsinger and DeRosa found that virtual teams that have been through team-building and interpersonal skill development activities perform better than those that have not.

Use team-building sessions—ideally conducted at an initial or subsequent face-to-face team meeting—to help team members strengthen working relationships and create team momentum that can enhance team effectiveness.

Assess development needs for team members and team leaders, and conduct skill-building focused on these areas. Reassess these needs over time.

Next: Watch out for performance peaks

4. Watch out for performance peaks

Many virtual teams face a performance peak around the one-year mark, after which performance may level off or decline.

Implement strategies to overcome this peak by:

  • Defining team roles and accountabilities to minimize frustration and misunderstandings that can damage morale and derail productivity;
  • Reviewing and refining team processes regularly;
  • Examining team performance periodically by collecting feedback from various stakeholders to assess the team’s performance; and
  • Identifying barriers to high performance and ways to overcome these barriers.

5. Create a ‘high-touch’ environment

It’s hard to replicate a high-touch environment in a virtual setting. That’s why virtual team members should meet in person at least annually.

Other ways to facilitate a high-touch environment:

  • Leverage synchronous tools (e.g., instant messaging) to increase spontaneous communication;
  • Use tools such as electronic bulletin boards to create a sense of shared space;
  • Choose communication technologies that are most appropriate to the specific task. For instance, e-mail is good for simple information sharing, while conference calls are better suited for interactive sharing of ideas or plans; and
  • Make wider use of videoconferencing.

6. Choose the right leader

A virtual team leader should have both technical and soft skills. This person should set clear goals and direction, and revisit these as priorities shift.

The leader must engage team members in the development of team strategy, provide timely feedback to team members, be responsive and accessible, and
celebrate team achievements and successes.

Virtual Team Success: A Practical Guide for Working and Leading from a Distance” (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-470-53296-6, $50) is available from major online booksellers.