Virtual Collaboration is Not For Everyone

Many organizations have migrated toward telecommuting and virtual work due to rising travel costs, a global customer base, and the dispersion of talent. While numerous organizations have made significant investments in virtual teams and the technology to support them, a surprising number of virtual teams are not successful.

OnPoint Consulting surveyed 48 virtual teams across industries and found that specific characteristics are required to lead and work effectively on virtual teams. Unfortunately, many organizations do not put as much thought as they should into their team leader decisions. In fact, we often hear stories about team leaders who were selected based on availability or simply because they volunteered. Remember, leading a virtual team is a challenging task and requires a different skill set than leading a traditional co-located team.

What are the characteristics that make top performing virtual leaders and virtual team members successful? Our research identified several characteristics and behaviors that enable leaders and team members to work effectively in a virtual setting.

The most effective virtual team leaders are able to balance both the execution-oriented practices and the interpersonal, communication, and cultural factors that define virtual teams. Organizations should take 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. In addition, they should periodically assess their leaders’ effectiveness and provide them with targeted feedback about how they can enhance their performance. Great leaders will be happy to learn what they can do to keep improving.

Organizations should also ensure that their virtual team members have the skills necessary to effectively collaborate from a distance. People who are motivated and are able to work in a self-directed manner, have a tolerance for ambiguity, are strong communicators, and are collaborative will be more effective on virtual teams.

An article in the June 2009 edition of BusinessWeek presented findings on what personality traits make for good virtual workers. While one might assume that introverted people would be more likely to thrive in a virtual setting, the study found that it was actually extroverts who fared best. Extroverted employees were more adept at finding ways to stay connected to others, despite their location. The study also showed that being structured and organized is essential for successfully working virtually.

Organizations generally need to make sure team members have the appropriate skills for tackling particular tasks. Laszlo Bock of Google says, “It is important to compose the team differently based on the problem the team needs to solve or address.” For example, the people chosen to help solve a detailed financial problem would most likely not be selected for a virtual team that’s created to tackle a customer satisfaction issue.

According to our study, the most important characteristics for virtual team members include strong communication and interpersonal skills, initiative, and flexibility.

As organizations begin to increase the use of virtual teams it’s important to understand that virtual teaming is not for everyone. Understanding the characteristics necessary for succeeding in a virtual environment is very important. Organizations and virtual team leaders would benefit from considering who needs to be on virtual teams to ensure that high quality decisions are made and across-the-board buy-in is achieved. 

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