In the competitive market, virtual teams represent a growing response to the need for improving time-to-market, low-cost and rapid solutions to complex organizational problems. Virtual teams enable organizations to pool the talents and expertise of employees and non-employees by eliminating time and space barriers. Nowadays companies are heavily investing in virtual team to enhance their performance and competitiveness so much so that they have become a fact of business life.
The virtual teams offer several advantages to any business from ability to use the best talent regardless of location, providing cross-functional expertise without boundaries, ability to integrate talent and facilitate transnational innovation processes, help in global collaboration and coordination specially in R&D activities.
Unlike a traditional team, a virtual team works across space, time and organizational boundaries with links strengthened by webs of communication technologies. Therefore, there are certain weaknesses to which these kinds of teams are prone to like vulnerability to mistrust, communication breakdowns, and conflicts.
Cultural and functional diversity and varying work practices do not assist in building team cohesion and commonality towards a central goal.
Everything has to be formally bought to the table with structured and documented work processes and accountability. The natural camaraderie of a team working from the same location and moving in a definite direction is missing and has to be cultivated with great thought.
For any virtual team to succeed and do that phenomenally, it is important for the manager to establish rules of conduct specific to his team – method of communication and team operating procedures. In order to do so, it is important to realize the critical focal points for virtual team management : Process, People and Communication.
From a PEOPLE point of view, steps to be taken to lead a virtual team:
Cultivating a Global Mindset in team members by establishing a basic sensitivity to the basics of working virtually—bridging cultural differences, aligning communication modes with workflow, and discouraging negative behaviors.
Establish a sense of Camaraderie by getting the team together and helping members break ice and foster relationships with each other. Understand your team members and create informal sessions for the team to get to know each other as people. This is imperative in the purpose to getting the team to share a common vision and work out the basic operational processes to work cohesively together.
Creating a positive working environment by enabling team members to disregard conflicts and confusion, and look at the larger picture and aim to work together rather than play the blame game across boundaries.
From a PROCESS point of view, steps to be taken to lead a virtual team:
Establishing shared responsibility towards team goals by imbuing members with a team spirit that creates a cohesive work unit and stresses the commonality of purpose. Team members need to develop an understanding about their mutual dependence to achieve the team objectives.
Coordinate and align components of critical work systems to meet deadlines within time and budgetary constraints. As a manager, you need to figure out how to fit the operational nuts and bolts together to achieve the deliverables. Team members need to figure out how to compensate for the loss of physical context in a virtual environment and make a real effort to share an understanding of situations that arise and work together to find solutions.
Create a conflict management system to resolve legitimate issues. Conflicts are inevitable in the virtual environment where experts in different fields have different ideas and are unable to resolve them face-to-face. It is imperative to identify conflicts early on and deal with them fairly. Make sure to actively engage team members in communicating issues (no issue is too minor if someone brings it up) and follows up to ensure appropriate resolution.
From a COMMUNICATION point of view, steps to be taken to lead a virtual team:
Establish and maintain standards on frequency and modes of communication and hold members accountable for acting accordingly. Members make sure they are available to the team according to the established standards that everyone signed off on.
For example, everyone knows the team’s normal working hours and how often members check voice mail, e-mail, and interoffice mail. They know how quickly to respond to or acknowledge each type of communication. In high-performing virtual teams, the message sender takes responsibility for prioritizing communication, clearly indicating what is informational and what requires action, and by whom.
Have information sharing processes in place to ensure that all stakeholders are comfortable in asking for what they need, and stating when their needs are not met. In addition, everyone has access to appropriate technology to enable reliable, current exchange of information. Of critical importance is the team’s access to competent and timely technical support, including the assurance that compatibility issues do not compromise file sharing and exchange.