Because employees are increasingly scattered across the globe, virtual teamwork is crucial. A recent study of virtual teams by Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management at London Business School, found that many of the groups she studied were beleaguered by time zone differences, cultural miscues, and lack of chemistry. Other virtual teams, meanwhile, were high performers, virtual hot spots of innovation and energy. Why does one virtual team thrive while another stumbles? What differentiates the two?
In this month’s Business Insight Report Lynda shares 10 rules for making a success of virtual teams , teams of employees scattered across the globe who rarely if ever meet in person. Based on her findings, she has identified certain traits and practices common to the most successful virtual teams and their employers.
- Invest in an online resource where members can learn quickly about one another. Because of their physical separation, one of the biggest challenges virtual-team members face is an inability to easily learn about one another and what each person brings to the project.
- Choose a few team members who already know each other. Virtual teams are much more likely to be productive and innovative if they include some people who already know each other. So-called heritage relationships are crucial to rapidly building networks among the team members.
- Identify ‘boundary spanners’ and ensure that they make up at least 15% of the team. Boundary spanners are people who, as a result of their personality, skills or work history, have lots of connections to useful people outside the team.
- Cultivate boundary spanners as a regular part of company wide practices and processes. The networking role that boundary spanners play, not just on virtual teams but in the company at large, is so important that companies should try to keep them in continuous supply.
- Break the team’s work up into modules so that progress in one location is not overly dependent on progress in another. Virtual teams that are spread across the globe have the potential advantage of working around the clock. At Nokia, team members in Helsinki can hand work over at the end of their day to U.S. counterparts.
- Create an online site where a team can collaborate, exchange ideas and inspire one another. Strong virtual teams often have a shared online workspace that all members can access 24 hours a day. This space can include the ability to see one another’s work, a shared piece of work, like a new product design, or a creative proposal, and means for posting messages.
- Encourage frequent communication. But don’t try to force social gatherings. Members of successful teams communicate with one another often. Interestingly, the mode of communication doesn’t seem to be important. What is most important is that communication be frequent and rapid.
- Assign only tasks that are challenging and interesting. Because the work of virtual teams is often unsupervised, their tasks should be stimulating and challenging, otherwise the team risks disintegrating under the weight of disinterest.
- Ensure the task is meaningful to the team and the company. Ideally, a virtual team’s mission should resonate with each member’s values, both as individuals and as professionals who want to develop their skills, and be of clear importance to the company. Virtual teams really buzz when they are ignited by a question or a task so compelling and exciting that people from across the company are drawn toward it.
- When building a virtual team, solicit volunteers as much as possible. As Wikipedia and Linux have shown, virtual teams appear to thrive when they include volunteers with valuable skills, people whose proof of commitment is their willingness to join the team on their own.