The Characteristics of Effective Virtual Teams
Research by Lynda Gratton and Tamara Erickson (2007) found that successful virtual teams shared the following characteristics:
- Executive support
- Effective HR practices
- Well-structured teams
- Strong team leaders
Their study found that virtual teams do well when executives support the development of social relationships at work (thereby building trust among colleagues) and demonstrate collaboration. The ways in which executives build and support social relationships in their organizations are as varied as the organizations themselves, but Gratton and Erickson found that the most successful executives employ "signature" practices that are memorable, hard to replicate and particularly well-suited to their organizations.
Effective HR Practices
The study also found that two particular HR practices improved team performance: training in skills to build collaborative behavior and informal community building. In instances when collaboration was strong, they found that the HR team had made a significant investment in one or both of those practices, often in ways that reflected their organizations' cultures and business strategies.
Collaborative behaviors include demonstrating appreciation of others, engaging in purposeful conversations, creatively and productively resolving conflicts, and program management. Informal community building activities include feedback, mentoring and coaching because these practices help virtual workers feel connected to the organization. HR should also ensure that succession planning and promotions are tracked to make sure virtual team members are receiving recognition and credit (Leonard, 2011).
Selecting the right people to serve on virtual teams is critical to a team's success. T.H. Ong, Vice President, Americas and Asian Pacific for Global Integrations, Inc., notes that the best virtual workers are those who thrive in interdependent work relationships and who are self-reliant and self-motivated. Good virtual team members tend to like or tolerate ambiguity, and are independent thinkers who are willing to take initiative. Most importantly, Ong notes, good virtual workers have strong communication skills (Leonard, 2011).
Strong Team Leaders
For virtual teams to succeed, strong leadership is a must, and while the skills and abilities needed for managers of conventional teams are similar to those needed for leaders of virtual teams, there are a few key differences. Virtual teams don't have the benefit of frequent face-to-face interaction, and consequently, experience difficulty building trust and rapport among team members. To help foster trust and rapport, virtual team leaders must focus on relationship building, demonstrate excellent communication skills (including the ability to provide frequent feedback), and have emotional intelligence. Because decision- making can be a challenge, particularly early in a virtual team's partnership, virtual team leaders must also have a track record of producing results and a focus on process (Lockwood, 2010).
Practices of Effective Virtual Leaders
UNC professors Ben Rosen and Arvind Malhotra and University of Southern California professor Ann Majchrzax studied virtual teams and found that effective virtual leaders:
- Establish and maintain trust through the use of communication technology.
- Ensure that diversity on the team is understood, appreciated and leveraged.
- Manage virtual work-cycles and meetings.
- Enhance external visibility of the team and its mentors.
- Ensure that individuals benefit from participation on the virtual team.
Source: Rosen et al, 2007.