3 Steps to Support Virtual Teams

There are challenges inherent in the virtual team concept. It is difficult to build trust and to manage conflict when team members lack the ability to interact face to face.

By Meena Dorr, Director, Corporate Relations, MBA@UNC

If estimates from the Telework Research Network are correct, there’s a good chance that as you read this article, you are sitting in your home office, catching up on some reading on your designated telework day. According to the Network, telecommuting grew by 61 percent between 2005 and 2009, and, based on current trends, the organization estimates the number of telecommuting workers will grow to nearly five million by 2016—a 69 percent increase! (Lister, K. & Harnish, T. (June 2011), The State of Telework in the U.S. Telework Research Network, Carlsbad, CA.)

With the growth of telework comes the inevitable growth of virtual teams, groups of people who are geographically dispersed but who work together via new technology such as teleconferencing and videoconferencing, and old technology such as e-mail and phone. Today, you would be hard pressed to find an organization that doesn’t have one or more virtual workers.

The Rise and Staying Power of Virtual Teams

A variety of factors led to the rise of virtual teams. Increasingly sophisticated technology made it possible, and globalization made it necessary. Once virtual teams began, organizations noticed an unanticipated bonus: increased productivity. According to Chad Thompson, senior consultant with Aon Hewitt, the productivity of effective virtual teams can increase from 10 to 43 percent, depending on the industry and the organization, and in several cases, the increase in productivity was equal to (or more than) the organizations’ savings on real estate costs.

In addition, studies confirm that virtual teams offer employers and employees flexibility, reduce time to market, often result in better work outcomes than conventional work teams, attract better talent, and increase knowledge sharing. Global virtual teams allow organizations to garner talent from all parts of the world, save money on travel, and allow access to lower-wage resources. (Lockwood, N. (2010). Successfully Transitioning to a Virtual Organization: Challenges, Impact, and Technology, SHRM Research Quarterly. Alexandria, VA.)

Virtual Team Challenges

However, there are challenges inherent in the virtual team concept. It is difficult to build trust and to manage conflict when team members lack the ability to interact face to face. Communication often is more challenging, particularly among global virtual teams, which also can make cultural barriers more difficult to overcome. (Ebrahim, A., Shamsuddin, A. & Taha, Z. (2009), Virtual Teams: A Literature Review, Australian Journal of Basic and Applied Science,3(3), 2653-2669.)

A recent report by RW3 LLC, a cultural training service, found that 46 percent of virtual employees had never met their virtual team cohorts. The report, The Challenges of Working in Virtual Teams,was based on a survey of nearly 30,000 employees from multinational companies and found that a key challenge for virtual team members was the inability to read nonverbal cues (94 percent). It also found that 85 percent of employees felt an absence of collegiality among virtual team members.

In 2010, SHRM asked HR professionals how they supported their organization’s virtual workforce. The poll, Transitioning to a Virtual Organization,found that 76 percent of respondents had established policies and procedures for virtual work and 66 percent had worked with IT to ensure support for questions from workers about hardware and software required for virtual work. Only 37 percent of respondents, however, had provided e-learning opportunities for their virtual workers, and a mere 8 percent had provided cultural sensitivity training for their leadership styles. The growth of virtual teams clearly has outpaced support activities needed to ensure these teams’ success.

How HR Can Support Virtual Work Teams

There is good news: Challenges to virtual teams are not insurmountable. Active involvement in the proper selection and training of virtual team talent, selection of appropriate technologies, and encouragement of executive support for virtual teams can turn challenges into opportunities.

Step 1: Participate in the selection process of virtual team members and leaders. Successful virtual employees are self-motivated and self-reliant, excellent communicators, and able to work independently but not “lone wolves.” HR and talent management professionals can assist virtual team leaders at the team formation stage by assessing whether employees possess these skills to operate within a virtual team or can develop them with additional training.

Step 2: Ensure the appropriate selection, training, and use of virtual team technologies. Before a virtual team is formed, consider which technologies teams will need to be successful. Virtual workers rely on technology to assess nonverbal cues such as facial expressions—key drivers to establishing trust among team members. Platforms such as Yahoo! Messenger and Skype, shared technology services (such as Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange), remote computer access, Web conferencing (such as WebEx and NetMeeting), file transfer ability, e-mail, and telephone (either hard-wired or VOIP) must be assessed by IT and HR, and made available to all virtual team members. Ensure that training on how and when to use these communication technologies is offered (and offered again as remote team members rotate in and out).

Step 3: Train, train, train. There is no doubt the skills and competencies required of virtual team members are complex, making the odds of assembling that A-team a long shot. For instance, you may find a technical guru whose knowledge is critical to the project at hand, but he finds communicating virtually a challenge. Similarly, maybe you’ve found that great communicator who has all the makings of becoming a great team leader, but she is befuddled by “groupware” and “social networking platforms.” Training is necessary for virtual teams to succeed, so HR and talent managers must identify the skills gaps to ensure training to close those gaps is made available.

Virtual teams have a promising future since they increase productivity, lower operating costs, and speed time to market. But they also face unique challenges. HR and talent management professionals can foster the success of virtual teams in their organizations through proper selection and training of virtual team talent, appropriate technology selection, and training programs designed to ensure virtual leaders possess the right combination of communications skills and business acumen.

Meena Dorr is the Director of Corporate Relations for MBA@UNC– an online MBA program from UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.

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