Whether your virtual teams are in the formation stage or have been operating for a few months – it is critical to ensure that they are set up for success and get off to a good start. Organizations that proactively plan how to structure their virtual teams to set them up for success will see a better return on their investment than those that do not.
Here are some other guidelines to follow to ensure your organization will maximize its investment in remote work:
Keep Your Virtual Teams At a Manageable Size
OnPoint’s research found that high performing virtual teams were smaller and more cohesive than low performing ones. For a team to make decisions effectively and operate efficiently, its ideal size should be five to ten people. When forming a new virtual team, consider who really needs to be included and make sure each member has a clear role. As more and more people get involved, virtual teams may be more susceptible to common pitfalls such as a lack of clear roles or clear goals. If you have a larger virtual teams, consider breaking it into sub-teams responsible for a specific deliverable or a core team with advisory groups so that they function effectively in a virtual setting. It is also critical that leaders are thoughtful about team membership and ensure that they are not encouraging their employees to over-commit themselves.
Choose Virtual Team Leaders Carefully
The most effective virtual team leaders balance both the execution-oriented practices and the interpersonal, communication, and cultural factors that define virtual teams. Therefore, organizations should select leaders who possess those key characteristics. When assigning a leader, take the time to select the individual with the appropriate skills—and not just go with the first person to volunteer or someone who already happens to lead a team or the person with the best technical skills. In addition, periodically assess the leaders’ effectiveness and provide targeted feedback about how they can enhance their performance. Great leaders will be happy to learn what they can do to keep improving.
Determine How Performance Will Be Recognized and Rewarded
When virtual team members are consistently recognized and rewarded for their achievements, their commitment to the team and organization is reinforced and they stay motivated. A lack of engagement is common when virtual team members get little recognition. When a new virtual team is established, consider the best ways to recognize its individual members, the team as a whole, and its leader. As the team’s work gets underway and progresses, make sure members are consistently recognized for their achievements. This is particularly important when people join virtual teams on a voluntary basis. It’s also important to ensure that the reward and recognition systems promote collaboration among team members.
Group celebrations and bonuses shared by all team members might be effective rewards for some virtual teams. Whenever possible involve the team’s senior sponsors and stakeholders in the recognition process in formal and informal ways. Doing so will help further motivate team members because they’ll see that their work is appreciated from the top down.
Hold a Great Kick-Off Meeting
While meeting in person requires time and costs money, OnPoint's research shows that virtual teams that have an initial kick-off meeting perform better than those that do not. To facilitate team performance, we recommend that companies invest the time and money to bring members together for a kick-off meeting within the first 30 days of the team’s inception. Kick-off meetings help get everyone on the same page. Virtual team members learn about the scope of the work or project, get to know the people who are on their team and come to a consensus on team structure and processes. These sessions also allow time for members to develop a team plan and to build interpersonal relationships. The synergies and significant long-term payoff gained from working face-to-face on setting team norms, processes, and relationship-building appear to outweigh the expense of travel. If a face-to-face kick-off meeting is not feasible, we recommend replicating this through a series of well-planned virtual meetings that address the same issues.
Develop A Plan for Communicating Among Team Members
Agree on the types of technology members will use to communicate and how the team’s progress will be shared with stakeholders and management figures. Be sure to:
- Illustrate the connection between team activities and technological infrastructure
- Clarify communication needs and desires of team members
- Identify when face-to-face meetings should be used
- Train team members on communication technologies
During the kick-off meeting, new virtual teams will benefit from discussing how and when team members will use the available technologies. For example:
- How will the team share documents and update one another?
- Is email the best tool for this or is there another preferred mechanism?
- What communication technology will be best for conflict resolution? How about for brainstorming solutions to problems?
- What decisions are best for teleconferences or other collaborative e-tools?
- Are any key technologies not available for the team?
- Will this lack of availability create problems for the team? If so, what accommodations need to be made and how will the team minimize the impact?
Hold Team Development Activities
Virtual team members often have a hard time establishing trust with one another because they don’t have the advantage of frequent in-person interactions. They also struggle because they cannot see one another’s body language, which makes it difficult to gain a sense for team members’ personalities and intentions.
Using team development activities during the kick-off meeting can help to build trust and camaraderie among team members. Many of the most successful teams in OnPoint’s study had skill development training during their initial kick-off meeting and subsequent training over time.
Three types of activities during the launch meeting help team members get to know each other, build confidence in each other’s ability, and provide a platform for teamwork and communication back on the job. They are personal introductions including background and experience, review of individual style and how it affects teamwork and communication, and an experiential exercise or team project.
Monitor and Assess Team Performance
Leaders need to have a system in place that helps them regularly review virtual team processes to assess what’s working well and what needs to be improved. Leaders should continually monitor, assess, and improve communication, as it’s the top skill development need reported by team members and the top characteristic needed to lead from a distance. And most importantly, they need to periodically examine how well the team is performing.
The decision to launch a virtual team should not be made on a whim. Factors such as team membership, team size, the right technology, and effective kick-off meetings should be carefully considered before launching a virtual team. It is also important to ensure the overall organization is prepared to support virtual team work.