“Virtual Teams Are Worse than I Thought.” A Response to Patrick Lencioni

3 principles that can ease the inevitable challenges of virtual teamwork.

Dear Patrick (hope you don’t mind the informality),

I read with great interest your piece, “Virtual Teams Are Worse than I Thought,” The Hub, May 2017. First, I say, “Thank you,” for all the powerful insights you have contributed to the study of successful teams. I am not alone in owing you a debt of gratitude. It sounds like a “but” is coming, doesn’t it? I don’t mean to be a “Yes, But(er),” more of a “Yes, And(er).”

As someone who has worked on, studied, trained, and written about virtual teams (VTs) for many years, I just want to add some thoughts to your point of view.

VTs are challenging, there is no doubt. Even, as in your case, when your virtual colleagues are “virtuous, kind, and gracious human beings,” challenges emerge. You specifically mention “normal stuff” such as: different interpretations of agreements, incorrect assumptions, and dropped balls leading to a questioning of “one another’s capabilities and intentions.” Those challenges are very real, even in face-to-face (F2F) teams. In VTs, the problems are amplified because of the psychological and relational detachment between members (virtual distance).

As you say, we should avoid virtual teamwork when we can, and if we can’t we should commit to spending as much face-to-face time together as possible. On many occasions, I have seen the positive power of just one F2F meeting at the beginning of a VT project. Trust and personal obligations are built much quicker when you meet physically to work, eat, drink, and play.

Unfortunately, the speed with which some VTs must be set up and dissolved in our hyper-competitive business environment often makes this impossible; additionally, the travel and accommodation costs of regularly meeting F2F in an increasingly borderless global workplace adds significantly to the challenges.

What’s to be done?

Let me highlight three principles we think can ease the inevitable challenges of virtual teamwork:

The Appreciation Principle

We find many VTs begin life with a negative mindset. There is a lot of bad press about working virtually, and not all of it is “fake news.” There are, however, also significant productivity and relational benefits that often are sidelined. Speaking personally, I am at least 10 times more productive (and happily so) working on a virtual team. I can do “deep work” in my virtual workspace, which is so important to adding value to my team.

On the relational side, I often amuse virtual team members by asking, “What if you had to work day after day in the same office with your VT colleagues? Would your relationships be that much better? At least working virtually, you can distance yourself and more easily compartmentalize any colleague attitudes or behaviors that can make working together onerous (let me make a confession: As an off-the-scale introvert, I might be skewed toward VT benefits, but we introverts are people, too!)

The Anticipation Principle

Part of the problem with virtual teams is that many of us don’t approach them with enough care and respect. VTs are much more vulnerable to team member isolation, fragmentation of team effort, and confusion. A virtual team leader—and members—must be much more proactive in anticipating and preparing for likely challenges. Over the last 15 years, we have identified six areas (the Six Cs) that virtual teams must pay very close attention to when they start out, and as they go forward (first mentioned in my book, “Where in the World is My Team: Making a Success of Your Virtual Global Workplace,” Jossey-Bass, 2008).

Virtual teams need a working “culture” of operating agreements; agreements that help answer the question, “How are we going to work together given the challenges of virtual distance? Without shared operating agreements, a VT will make things up as it goes along (what we call in England “muddling through”). It can be difficult to ask virtual team members who work across different geographic and cultural borders to share a common set of values, but they can work together to create a shared set of tactical operating agreements. To do this they a need a focusing framework, and that’s where the Six Cs comes into play:

Cooperation agreements: To support trust-building in the absence of frequent face-to-face interaction, e.g., “We never fail to keep our reasoning and actions transparent to one another.”

Convergence agreements: To support working toward a common goal, e.g., “We never fail to challenge anything that could take us off-purpose.”

Coordination agreements: To support predictability and efficient working, e.g., “We never fail to communicate and validate our team and individual priorities at every virtual meeting.”

Capability agreements: To support building individual and team capabilities, e.g., “We never fail to share all relevant information, knowledge, and skills within the team in a timely way.”

Communication agreements: To support development of shared understanding, e.g., “We never fail to check our assumptions and interpretations with each other.”

Cultural Intelligence agreements: To support inclusive teamwork, e.g., “We never fail to explore fully the potential value of our different ways of thinking and doing.”

The Attention Principle

Virtual teams in our experience require far greater attention and discipline than face-to-face teams. It is one thing to create shared operating agreements, but leaders and members must be guardians of the agreement galaxy. This monitoring can be done formally from time to time via a team survey and relevant metrics, or more informally in team progress discussions (or both).

Wishing you and your virtual team(s) well.

Warm regards,

Terence Brake (and the virtual TMA World team)

Terence Brake is the director of Learning & Innovation, TMA World (http://www.tmaworld.com/training-solutions/), which provides blended learning solutions for developing talent with borderless working capabilities. Brake specializes in the globalization process and organizational design, cross-cultural management, global leadership, transnational teamwork, and the borderless workplace. He has designed, developed, and delivered training programmes for numerous Fortune 500 clients in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Brake is the author of six books on international management, including “Where in the World Is My Team?” (Wiley, 2009) and e-book “The Borderless Workplace.”