The business justification for virtual teams is strong. They increase speed and agility and leverage expertise and vertical integration between organizations to make resources readily available. Virtual teams also lessen the disruption of people’s lives because people do not have to travel to meet. And in today’s business world that’s big.  That’s green.  Team members can also broaden their careers and perspectives by working across organizations and cultures and on a variety of projects and tasks.

Although the effective use of electronic communication and collaboration technologies is fundamental to the success of a virtual team, virtual teams entail much more than technology and computers. When virtual teams and their leaders are asked about successes and failures, they rarely mention technology as a primary reason for either.  While it’s important that software packages such as Seavus Project Viewer are used to keep virtual teams informed and in sync, it’s not all about technology.

There are seven key success factors for virtual teams, of which technology is only one. Others are human resource policies, training, and development for team leaders and team members, standard organizational and team processes, organizational culture, leadership, and leader and member competencies. We’ll look at these in more detail in the next article.

Not all of the key success factors need to be in place for virtual teams to succeed. The implementation of virtual teams within an organization can actually push toward the attainment of key success factors.  Successful virtual teams seem to demand certain conditions, and the existence of the teams will, over time, help to create the infrastructure conditions that make them work.

NORTEL’s Information Systems Group implemented virtual teams before it had attained many of the key success factors. The teams immediately recognized that they needed certain things to succeed, such as high levels of autonomy to do their jobs, standard team-initiation processes, structured communication plans, and appropriate electronic communication and collaboration technologies for all team members. They also recognized that they needed to re-educate their customers about what to expect from a virtual team work environment.

The leaders of the virtual teams independently created team processes and standards, communication plans, and empowerment guidelines for team members. They put together customer-education packages. The training organization created a virtual team Web site and collected and placed the processes and lessons learned on the intranet for new virtual team leaders and members.  Over time, NORTEL took a more deliberate approach to moving toward an infrastructure that would support virtual teams. Many of the processes it formally institutionalized got their start through the boots trap approach of its first virtual teams. Again, seven key success factors for virtual teams are:

- Human resource policies

- Training and on-the-job education and development

- Standard organizational and team processes

- Use of electronic collaboration and communication technology

- Organizational culture

- Leadership support of virtual teams

- Team-leader competencies

- Team-member competencies

Let’s deeper at these.

Human Resource Policies

Human resource policies should support working virtually. Systems must be integrated and aligned to recognize, support, and reward the people who work in and lead virtual teams.

Team leaders support career development

Career-Development Systems

Team leaders can help to support virtual team members by providing career opportunities and assignments that are comparable to those in traditional team settings. Applying promotion and career-development policies and actions fairly to people who work in virtual settings helps to reinforce the perception that working virtually is an accepted career option.

Rewarding Cross-Boundary Work and Results

Organizational reward and recognition systems often favor individual and functional work. Virtual team members, however, frequently operate in a cross-functional and/or cross-organizational environment. Changes must be made in the ways in which people are recognized and rewarded. Leaders must develop performance objectives for team members that include working across boundaries and sharing information to support virtual teamwork.

Providing Resources and Support for Working Virtually

Create and support policies that provide your team with technical support for working remotely.  All team members should have equal and immediate access to electronic communication and collaboration technology, training, and technical support.

Training and On-the-Job Education and Development

Formal training in using technology is vital for success. As an example, team leaders at one large organization believed that under-funded technological training for team leaders and team members was one reason that their efforts to implement groupware did not fully succeed. Money was spent on the technology - machines, applications, and compatibility - but not on teaching people how to effectively utilize it.

Team members have mutual support

In addition to a formal training curriculum, make certain that the team members have access to continual online training and technical support. Ask your training department about the feasibility of creating and implementing these types of systems.

Standard Organizational and Team Processes

Consider developing and implementing standard team processes. The use of standard processes reduces the time needed for team startup and may eliminate the need for unnecessary reinvention of operating practices each time a team is chartered. Practices need to be flexible, however, to promote adaptation to a particular virtual team’s situation. Common standard technical processes include:

- Definitions of requirements

- Estimates of costs 

- Procurement

- Team charters

- Project planning

- Documentation

- Reporting

- Controlling

Electronic Collaboration and Communication Technology

As a virtual team leader, you will need to select electronic collaboration and communication technology that meets the needs of your team. You also will need to ensure that the organization is ready to support your technical needs. Introducing the electronic communication and collaboration technology needed for virtual teamwork, such as desktop video conferencing or groupware, requires that three primary organizational conditions be in place: 

The organization has a well-funded, respected, and established information systems staff, whose members are experienced in installing and supporting electronic collaboration technologies in many different locations. 

Communication technology is important for virtual teams

There is a commitment by the organization to keep personal computer systems as up to date as possible, regardless of a person’s title or duties.  When systems fall behind, the costs of upgrades and the time to introduce them mounts quickly. Productivity also may fall as people spend time attempting to fix their equipment or work around it.

The organization has a well-maintained corporate network that has room to expand to meet the needs of more complex systems and users.

Organizational Culture

Organizational culture includes norms regarding the free flow of information, shared leadership, and cross-boundary collaboration. It helps to create organizational norms and values that focus on collaboration, respecting, and working with people from all cultures, keeping criticism constructive, and sharing information. The organization’s culture sets the standard for how virtual team members work together. An adaptive, technologically advanced, and nonhierarchical organization is more likely to succeed with virtual teams that is a highly structured, control-oriented organization.

The success of virtual teams is related to how the organization fosters or impedes trust between itself and its external partners. Treating partners as less than equal, hoarding information, forgetting to share data or results in a timely manner, and using competitive or proprietary information inappropriately can erode trust quickly. For example, many Australian firms report that they have abandoned virtual partnering structures because of issues of trust and control.

Leadership support of virtual teams

For virtual teams to succeed, the organization’s leadership must establish a culture that values teamwork, communication, learning, and capitalizing on diversity. The key to establishing an organizational culture that promotes virtual teamwork is that managers and virtual team leaders at all levels must be open to change and must support virtual teamwork. It’s extremely helpful and important to have a multifunction team of senior managers promoting and supporting a virtual office initiative right from the start.  This will definitely go a long way in ensuring the success of virtual teams in your organization.

Virtual team leaders and members can help managers to develop supportive behaviors. They can offer specific suggestions to management regarding the four categories of leadership behaviors that encourage virtual team performance: communicating, establishing expectations, allocating resources, and modeling desired behaviors.

First, it is critically important to communicate throughout the organization that working across time and distance and with organizational partners is not just a temporary fad but a new way of doing business, one that leverages knowledge and skills and capitalizes on diversity. This includes assigning virtual teams important and high-visibility tasks and projects and reporting the benefits and results of their work so that virtual teamwork is respected in the organization.

Leadership support is crucial for virtual teams' success

Second, it is important to establish clear expectations about how virtual teams work. Procedures and goals must be clear so that virtual team members know how they are to work and what their objectives are. With all the new things they must learn about operating in a virtual team, the team members need clear guidelines and objectives to steer by. The other members of the organization also need to understand how virtual teams operate, and that the teams’ end goals are aligned with organizational objectives and are, in effect, the same as those of co-located teams. Setting high expectations for performance also strengthens the perception that virtual teams deliver results.

Third, leaders who allocate resources for training, technology, and travel send strong signals that bolster the message that virtual teams are important.  Chartering virtual teams to work in an underfunded environment is a prescription for failure. Time and money must be allocated for training for virtual team members in areas such as cross-cultural work, project management, and technology. Time and money must be allocated for team leaders to travel for face-to-face meetings with team members at the beginning of the team’s life and then when necessary. Resources also must be dedicated to acquiring and maintaining the technology needed to facilitate the team’s work.

Fourth, and most important, effective leaders model the behaviors they expect. They align cross-functional and regional goals and objectives. They work with other managers across geographic and cultural boundaries. They solicit team members’ input and demonstrate trust in their judgment, particularly in the members’ functional areas of expertise. Effective team leaders show flexibility, changing as business conditions dictate. They do not expect behaviors from others that they do not engage in themselves.

Team-Leader Competencies

The challenges that virtual team leaders face are immense. Many report that they feel as if they are the “glue” that holds their teams together. They have to establish trust in an environment with little or no face-to-face contact or feedback. These challenges necessitate the development of an additional set of competencies that complement the skills for leading traditional teams. These competencies are as follows:

Team leaders develop organizational processes

- Coaching and managing performance without traditional forms of feedback

- Selecting and appropriately using electronic communication and collaboration technologies

- Leading in a cross-cultural environment

- Helping to develop and transition team members

- Building and maintaining trust

- Networking across hierarchical and organizational boundaries

- Developing and adapting organizational processes to meet the demands of the team

- Team leaders can champion their own development by deliberately undertaking training and on-the-job assignments that build competence in these areas.

Team-Member Competencies

The people who work as virtual team members have to develop their own competencies. First, virtual teamwork is not for everyone. Serving on a virtual team may seem too transitory for some individuals who need face-to-face interaction and stability in a work environment. Without the structure of a co-located setting and day-to-day contact with team members, they may feel lonely or left out.

All members of traditional and virtual teams need a solid grounding in their respective disciplines. However, virtual team members need new competencies.

Team leaders can help to facilitate competence development by working with team members to create learning plans that use training and on-the-job assignments. The definitions of team-member competencies will vary, depending on the team’s type, mission, and composition. There is, however, a relatively stable set of six critical competencies:

- Project management techniques

- Networking across functional, hierarchical, and organizational boundaries

- Using electronic communication and collaboration technologies effectively

- Setting personal boundaries and managing time

- Working across cultural and functional boundaries

- Using interpersonal awareness

Over time, most people can develop competencies that are needed to work virtually. Adequate training, education, and leadership support and feedback can speed development.