Three Tips to Create Effective Virtual Teams

In today’s virtual environment, airplanes, hotel rooms, coffee shops and practically anywhere along the way can instantly transform into a mobile office — making us more connected, more engaged and better able to collaborate and execute on the fly.

Virtual teams are on the rise, and in some cases can be even more productive than in-person teams, according to research by the American Productivity & Quality Center, a professional consulting organization. As a result, increasing numbers of companies are either migrating to these new types of teams, or creating a hybrid workforce augmenting on-site teams with virtual workers.

Some are tapping into familiar technology such as video conferencing and virtual document sharing, while others are leveraging more complex communication systems, such as online discussion groups and social media. But while technology plays a huge part in closing the distance between virtual teams, these tools alone are not enough to achieve collaboration.

While there are advantages to having virtual teams, talent managers must be aware of certain pitfalls when building and managing virtual teams. Here are the top three, along with ways to avoid them.

Don’t employ a one-size-fits-all approach. Hiring strategies for virtual team members are vastly different than for in-office positions. A virtual workplace requires far more self-reliance and self-motivation than needed for in-office employees. That’s why it’s important to identify the right individuals who demonstrate necessary skills — such as the ability to think independently, make clear decisions and take decisive action when called for, often without direction from higher-ups.

But a talent manager’s work isn’t done once the hire is made. Even if the employee possesses all the skills needed to be successful, additional training may be required to ensure communication across team members is happening, which can vary depending on the individual and the project.

Don’t assume collaboration will happen automatically. More than 60 percent of respondents in a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey on virtual teams reported that no specific training for online collaboration was provided — undoubtedly a hamper on team productivity.

Investing a small amount of time upfront ironing out strategies for proper communication and collaboration in a virtual setting as well as having regular check-ins on how these processes are working will pay big dividends down the road. Regularly setting measurable goals and deliverables, providing timely feedback and creating clear accountability for both virtual and on-site team members are essential building blocks for successful virtual teams.

Don’t think advanced tools will spell success. Many companies make the mistake of assuming the latest, most complex technology will foster the highest level of collaboration and productivity. While online technologies can make working together virtually as effective, or even more effective, than collaborating in-person, complex tools are not always the right ones for the job.

Take transactive memory systems (TMS), for instance, which offer a window into the technical, cultural and tactical knowledge of each team member to help employees solve complex problems by identifying who on the team has the expertise for a particular issue, or who can refer you to the appropriate resource. While they can be immensely helpful, building a TMS requires a significant investment of time and money and may not be the best answer for a company’s needs. In some cases, a simple instant messaging system or Skype call could get you to the same place faster, with far less expense and training and better results.

Working in virtual teams is not without challenges, but can reap significant business benefit when correctly executed. With thoughtful planning, effective communication and an open mind, companies can take their teams to the next level.

Susan E. Cates is president and associate dean of executive development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and executive director of MBA@UNC. She can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.