Around the world, a wide range of corporate tasks are being performed by teams of employees who rarely if ever meet in person.
The rise of so-called virtual teams is hardly surprising, given the vast investments corporations are making in internal communications and networks. Technically, it’s no longer a challenge to work closely with colleagues in distant locations or to hold meetings with participants scattered around the globe.
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In practical terms, however, plenty of hurdles remain. Among them: time-zone differences that make quick exchanges difficult, and cultural miscues that can cause misunderstandings. Teams that don’t meet in person are considered less likely to develop the kind of chemistry seen in teams that do — an element that’s often seen as a key factor in making teams productive.
A recent study of virtual teams at multinational companies — teams ranging in size from four to nearly 200 — found that many of the groups were beleaguered by just these kinds of long-distance challenges, to the point of being in continuous danger of breaking up. Other virtual teams, meanwhile, were high performers, virtual hot spots of innovation and energy.
Why does one virtual team thrive while another stumbles? What differentiates the two?
It’s an important issue, as companies become more reluctant to bear the expense of frequent in-person meetings — and employees increasingly resent the burdens travel places on their health and personal lives. Finding a way to make virtual teams work better is therefore crucial if companies are going to get the most productivity out of their far-flung work force.
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This research began with in-depth case studies of successful virtual teams at a number of companies, including BPBP +2.71% PLC, Nokia Corp.NOK -3.48% and Ogilvy & Mather, a unit of WPP Group PLC. In addition, a research team at London Business School surveyed more than 1,500 virtual-team members and leaders from 55 teams across 15 European and U.S. multinational companies.
Based on our findings, we have identified certain traits and practices common to the most successful virtual teams and their employers. Here, then, are 10 golden rules for making virtual teams more productive:
1. Invest in an online resource where members can learn quickly about one another.
Because of their physical separation, one of the biggest challenges virtual-team members face is an inability to easily learn about one another and what each person brings to the project. Online tools can help, in the same way that social-networking Web sites help college and high-school students get to know other members of their communities. Our research showed that such practices are often unfamiliar to those who graduated from college years ago, but they can be enormously powerful when used in virtual teams.
Take the advertising company Ogilvy & Mather. Its late founder, David Ogilvy, placed enormous emphasis on sharing knowledge within the company. More than a decade ago he invested in an internal IT-based community he called Truffles. As a gourmet, Mr. Ogilvy appreciated the rich taste of a truffle, and he believed that people should search for knowledge with as much energy and enthusiasm as a pig searches for truffles in the oak forests of France.
Truffles gives access to shared projects and a database of company knowledge. It provides forums for the many hundreds of communities of interest that have sprung up in the firm, where ideas and insights are shared. Truffles also features a detailed and frequently updated directory of all Ogilvy employees, giving each an opportunity to list the aspects of work that he or she is passionate about.
The Situation: While technology makes it possible for teams spread around the world to collaborate on projects, relying solely on electronic communications has its shortcomings.
What Doesn’t Work: Members of so-called virtual teams often tend not to develop the desired chemistry due to their physical separation, lack of familiarity and distant time zones.
Making It Work: Successful virtual teams share common traits, such as social-networking tools and the right mix of members, some of whom are already acquainted and others not.
Such capabilities help ensure that even virtual-team members can rapidly get to know something about one another. For instance, when a big Ogilvy client wants to launch an ad campaign simultaneously in all of its global markets, a virtual team can start working together effectively within days.
2. Choose a few team members who already know each other.
Virtual teams are much more likely to be productive and innovative if they include some people who already know each other. So-called heritage relationships are crucial to rapidly building networks among the team members.
A word of warning, though: If a majority of the people on a team already know each other, the team can become stale and predictable. It’s often through the unexpected insights of new colleagues that innovation is sparked.
3. Identify “boundary spanners” and ensure that they make up at least 15% of the team.
Boundary spanners are people who, as a result of their personality, skills or work history, have lots of connections to useful people outside the team. BP has a long history of colleagues from different business units working together to span the corporate boundaries that separate them.
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Another word of warning, though: Having too many boundary spanners risks giving the team so many connections to the outside that it loses its sense of identity and its shared goal.
4. Cultivate boundary spanners as a regular part of companywide practices and processes.
The networking role that boundary spanners play — not just on virtual teams but in the company at large — is so important that companies should try to keep them in continuous supply.
At Nokia, for example, a huge range of routines and processes support and encourage employees to expand their personal networks. To start with, new hires are formally introduced to at least 10 people both within and outside of their departments. It’s an effort that extends outside the company as well. Nokia has strong working relationships with the faculties of more than 100 universities, co-hosting conferences, sharing research initiatives and supporting postgraduate work.
Growing boundary spanners throughout the company helps ensure that when virtual teams are pulled together, at least some of the members likely will have met before.
5. Break the team’s work up into modules so that progress in one location is not overly dependent on progress in another.
Coordinating work across distant time zones can be a continuing battle. Many teams we studied sank into acrimony as one part of the team waited for another to complete part of a task, or as one group worked faster than another.
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For Further Reading
These related articles from MIT Sloan Management Review can be accessed online
- Improving the Performance of Top Management Teams
By Andrew J. Ward, Melenie Lankau, Allen C. Amason, Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld and Bradley R. Agle (Spring 2007 issue)
The greater the perceived difference in organizational values among members of a top management team and their CEO, the greater the conflict.
- The Comparative Advantage of X-Teams
By Deborah Ancona, Henrik Bresman and Katrin Kaeufer (Spring 2002)
Researchers outline the five components of successful teams: external activity, extensive ties inside and outside the company, expandable tiers of responsibility, flexible membership and execution mechanisms.
- Building an Effective Global Business Team
By Vijay Govindarajan and Anil K. Gupta (Summer 2001)
Executives guiding global teams must institute processes that emphasize the cultivation of trust and minimize the hindrances to communication caused by geographical, cultural and language differences.
- How To Lead a Self-Managing Team
By Vanessa Urch Druskat and Jane V. Wheeler (Summer 2004)
The external leaders of self-directed teams must excel at one skill: managing the boundary between the team and the larger organization.
Whenever possible, assign tasks to team members in different locations that allow them to move ahead at their own pace. Depending on the type of work, try designing the work flow so that contributions from different locations can be assembled into a whole toward the end of the process.
6. Create an online site where a team can collaborate, exchange ideas and inspire one another.
Strong virtual teams often have a shared online workspace that all members can access 24 hours a day. This ensures that while different team members or groups are working relatively independently at times, they can continuously follow the progress and insights of other team members.
At Ogilvy, Truffles includes sites dedicated to individual projects in which virtual teams are able to share their plans, modify a shared piece of work, and informally exchange ideas. This ensures that at any time, people can rapidly understand where their own work is, and how it fits with that of others.
7. Encourage frequent communication. But don’t try to force social gatherings.
Members of successful teams communicate with one another often. Interestingly, the mode of communication doesn’t seem to be important. At Nokia, for example, the preferred communication tool was text messaging, while in other companies it was email or voice mail. What is most important is that communication be frequent and rapid.
We encountered few negative comments about the amount of communication that went on — although conventions about the use of e-mail were much appreciated. At BP, for example, team members said that a whole set of rules, such as who should receive emails, who is copied and expectations of reply time, made it easier to work together.
Similarly, a few simple rules can be applied to team gatherings. Virtual teams often make an effort to get the members together at some point during an assignment. We discovered that the timing of such events can be crucial to their success.
Meetings with a strong social element can be resented, for example, when held early in the team’s existence. It seems that in the early phases, creating exciting work with a meaningful goal is seen as more useful than hosting social events. But once the virtual team is up and running and has begun to establish a shared working style, then a collective event can play a key role in the building of trust and goodwill.
8. Assign only tasks that are challenging and interesting.
Because the work of virtual teams is often unsupervised, their tasks should be stimulating and challenging — otherwise the team risks disintegrating under the weight of uninterest.
Indeed, we found that one of the biggest reasons virtual teams fail is because the members don’t find the work interesting. They simply fade away, with fewer and fewer dialing into the weekly conference calls or posting ideas on the shared site. It’s not that the members don’t like one another. It’s simply that the atmosphere becomes more like a country club than a dynamic collection of inspired people.
9. Ensure the task is meaningful to the team and the company.
Ideally, a virtual team’s mission should resonate with each member’s values — both as individuals and as professionals who want to develop their skills — and be of clear importance to the company.
We found that when virtual teams really buzz, it is because they are ignited by a question or a task so compelling and exciting that people from across the company are drawn toward it. This happened, for example, at BP when, more than a decade ago, former Chief Executive John Browne asked everyone in the company how BP could become what he termed “a force for good.” His question sparked a whole host of virtual teams to gather around the question.
For example, one team of young people, the self-styled “Ignite” team, looked at the idea of trying to shift more energy production to sustainable resources, such as solar power and wind. It was this team’s energy and focus that resulted in BP’s early commitment to a sustainable-energy agenda.
The importance of meaningful work and inspiring visions is clear in the widely known results of two virtual teams: the collaboration that has produced the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, and the creators of Linux, an open-source computer operating system.
While neither is a company — each is made up of large numbers of volunteers — both owe much of their success to having inspired a sense of devotion and mission among their team members, or contributors. Both have ignited energetic and innovative communities with compelling and powerful questions: How do we create a way of bringing the wisdom of the world to everybody? And how do we build an open-source operating system for the world?
10. When building a virtual team, solicit volunteers as much as possible.
As Wikipedia and Linux have shown, virtual teams appear to thrive when they include volunteers with valuable skills — people whose proof of commitment is their willingness to join the team on their own.
Nokia, for one, sees a connection between a virtual team’s success and its openness to volunteers. The company says a significant portion of its teams that are working on strategic challenges of the future are made up of people who volunteered for the task.
—Dr. Gratton is a professor of management at London Business School. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org