With so many companies going global, merging, and reorganizing, more and more teams are made up of members who never meet face-to-face. An interesting question is how these virtual teams compare in performance to traditional co-located teams—and what is different and the same about their needs and requirements.
As we gain experience with virtual teams, it’s clear that they have one key advantage: most virtual teams are more diverse than the typical co-located team, and can combine different perspectives and experiences to innovate and find creative solutions to problems. The flip side is that these differences can be a liability if team members don’t appreciate them, or can’t overcome the challenges of collaborating across the boundaries of time and space. If team members can’t communicate and work together smoothly, the team’s performance will be weaker than that of a traditional team.
According to research we did at Wilson Learning a few years ago, the most effective virtual teams share four “people-oriented” characteristics:
- Style Diversity. Team members appreciate and take advantage of differences in interpersonal style.
- Shared Norms. They have a clear set of ground rules for how people treat each other within the team.
- Mutual Support. They feel interdependent, and people feel supported. This creates trust, an essential factor in the ability to collaborate effectively.
- Communication Processes. They have a shared understanding of communication roles and develop communication practices that facilitate sharing information and resolving conflicts.
Though managers often focus on task and technology concerns, our research predicts a high payoff for making a special effort to ensure that members of virtual teams have well-developed communication skills. That means making sure they know how to adapt to others’ interpersonal styles, can establish norms for how they will interact, are able to provide each other with mutual support, and can use communication practices that help them share information and reach agreements without disruptive conflicts. With these capabilities as a foundation for working together, virtual teams can function as effectively as a traditional team, while leveraging all the benefits of their valuable differences.
What kinds of communication problems have you experienced as a member or manager of a virtual team? Have you worked with a virtual team that was especially effective at collaborating to get things done? Let us know about your experiences.