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A physically dispersed workforce presents unique challenges. And although we’ve seen several high-profile companies discontinue their virtual work programs, a 2013 Global Workplace Analytics Survey reports the number of employees who worked virtually grew by 80% between 2005 and 2013. Without a plan to help staff work and manage in a virtual environment, your business bottom line can be affected.

This post is the first of a four-part series addressing virtual teamwork, the misconceptions, and the strategies for increasing the potential for efficacy of virtual teamwork.

What Exactly Is A Virtual Team?

Powell, Picoli, and Ives define virtual teams as “as groups of geographically, organizationally and/or time dispersed workers brought together by information and telecommunication technologies to accomplish one or more organizational tasks.”

Organizations that opt for virtual teams frequently share these three primary objectives:

• Survival in a hypercompetitive market
• Ability to deliver results faster
• Capacity for encouraging individual creativity

Some organizations are fully “virtual” while others incorporate aspects of virtual work into their operational plans. Whenever workers are “dispersed,” the effect on work processes, team culture, and timely accomplishment deliverables can be dramatic. Whether the dramatic effect stands to build or destroy is something you as a manager can impact.

In my workshops about building and leading effective virtual teams, one of our first activities aims to dispel misconceptions and increase awareness of virtual team characteristics:

It is a mistake to believe that virtual teams will function appropriately when left alone.

“Out of sight out of mind” does not apply to virtual teams. As Jon Bachrach states in this post, “Effective team leadership is key to establishing a well-organized virtual business.” It would be naïve to assume that a virtual team does not need an attentive leader since it is impossible to “look over their shoulders.” While the virtual team member is likely to thrive on an ability to work more flexibly and avoid the logistical hassles of commuting, work-related errands such as dry cleaning, and waiting around for face-to-face meetings that do not materialize, that member needs to feel included, needs to have clear guidance regarding expectations, and needs to be able to communicate through an established chain of command.

Dynamics between members of virtual teams are more complex than those in face-to-face teams.

The inability to read non-verbal clues presents a hurdle to virtual team members that does not exist for in-person teams. Since 55% of communication is non-verbal, 38% is para-verbal (how you sound), and 7% is verbal, removing 93% of the context of communication forces a disproportionate dependence onto the verbal spoken word. Physical distance can contribute to an avoidance of conflict, it’s just easier to default to “dealing with it later” if an exchange was tense or unclear. If not handled proactively, negativity can fester.

Additionally, the organizational structure differs with virtual teams. Compared to traditional teams, virtual teams support flatter organizational structures with dim lines of authorities and hierarchies. Virtual teams do not, by their nature, accommodate the types of informal information exchanges that occur naturally in a face-to-face workplace.

Delays can occur in fixing problems or reaching consensus, whereas in traditional teams a meeting can be called at any time of the day when all the members are present together in the office, resulting in quick decisions and problem solving.

The success of virtual teams is not driven by technology.

It is easy to assume that having the right digital tools, a conference call system that connects everyone easily, and email will make the virtual team indestructible, but technology is only 10% of the success of a virtual team. In reality, technology only assists virtual teamwork. How a virtual team functions is largely dependent on the human side of the coin – the amount of trust, collaboration and knowledge sharing members enjoy has far greater impact on the success of a virtual team.

In upcoming posts:

In upcoming posts, I look forward to delving into the technology needs of virtual teams, how to nurture trust among virtual team members, and organizational considerations when building virtual teams.

For now, consider what Sebastian Bailey said in this article, “Virtual working saves money, is better for the environment and gives staff the flexibility they crave, so it’s no wonder that more and more organisations are encouraging it.”

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