Virtual teams need human touch

Dispersed workers experience isolation and other challenges
By Jane Hawkrigg
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/07/2007

The popular phenomenon of virtual teaming — the use of work groups whose members may be widely distributed across geographies, time zones and functional categories — has been a major byproduct of the technology boom.

With the availability of cellphones, e-mail, intranets, web-based presentations and video-conferencing, far-flung teams can effortlessly move enormous amounts of information around the world, share documents and collaborate.

Virtual teaming also has other benefits: it allows organizations to combine the specialized talents of valued employees who are not in the same location and it permits a continuous cycle of workflow and feedback.

But it’s not a panacea. Virtual team members may experience a sense of isolation, feel their teams are not as cohesive as they might be and feel their work performance is hindered by the challenges of co-ordinating long-distance work.

Right Management recently undertook a global research project,

Understanding the HR Dimensions of Virtual Team Building

, to identify the best practices that make the difference between good and great virtual teams. A total of 213 individuals from 21 teams in 10 major organizations participated in the study. Eighty per cent were team members and 20 per cent were team leaders.

The following are six key findings from the study.

1. Virtual teams need special leadership.

Survey respondents chose leadership as the top factor that contributed to team success. But a single, permanent leader for a virtual team is no more important than the overall effective management of interpersonal, cultural and communication issues through the group’s collective efforts.

Team leaders need to make a special effort to leverage team talent, be inclusive of all members, provide the team with massive amounts of information, promote trust, encourage healthy discussions and help manage conflicts.

2. No trust, no team.

Interpersonal accountability was the strongest single determinant of higher performance among the teams surveyed. Also, trust developed more readily at the task level, but interpersonal trust was harder. In other words, it may be easier for a team member to believe his teammates will fulfill their responsibilities to the project than it is to trust that they will listen to his ideas and value his perspectives.

3. Team building pays off.

Only 35 per cent of those surveyed said they had ever had an effective team building session.

Those who did have team-building sessions scored significantly higher on team effectiveness factors than those who did not. These factors included leadership, decision-making and team performance. This suggested that team-building sessions, perhaps conducted at initial or subsequent face-to-face meetings, help strengthen working relationships, bridge culture gaps and create team spirit and momentum.

4. Don’t let the team peak and decline.

Fifty-four per cent of respondents said they had been working with their teams from one to three years, and 16 per cent for more than three years. However, team performance begins to drop after the first year. The teams working together for six to 12 months scored higher in performance than those operating from one to three years.

Unless there is an effort to compensate for the interpersonal and communication challenges of virtual teaming, work groups may be in danger of burnout. Some preventive measures identified in the study included reviewing team communication strategies regularly, defining roles and accountabilities and monitoring team performance.

5. High-tech and high-touch.

The study found correlations between the use of technology, such as videoconferencing, and the use of team-building sessions and face-to-face meetings.

However, organizations that used a wide variety of technologies tended to be lower performers. Therefore, the sheer quantity of media used does not guarantee good performance. Teams need to seek a healthy balance of effective human interaction and technologies that support this and the team’s objectives in appropriate ways.

6. Don’t abandon face-to-face meetings.

Fifty-five per cent of respondents said their teams met face to face once or twice per year, but 35 per cent said they had never met at all. Those who meet face to face performed better in several areas including: effective team leadership; managing cultural differences; and use of creative ideas and approaches. Meeting together in the same physical location, even once, can add to the workers’ ability to understand and appreciate one another, to feel cohesiveness and to tackle group tasks with mutual trust and shared purpose.

Jane Hawkrigg is a vice-president and national practice leader of Right Management in Toronto. She can be reached at jane.hawkrigg@right.com.

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