In our second part of the Cornell Study on Global Teams, we explore the ways to build teams that are scattered across the globe.
While virtual teams have many advantages, they frequently struggle to establish a strong sense of trust between individuals and to communicate effectively. Here are some suggestions to build virtual teams that will maximize the benefits of being virtual:
- Build Trust. Creating trust within a team is traditionally done through face-to-face interactions among team members. If possible, it is also encouraged for a virtual team to at least have one such in-person interaction. These are important not just to introduce one another, but because they can accelerate the creation of “swift trust”. If established, swift trust can significantly benefit the group so that virtual meetings have more robust participation of team members and subsequent virtual meetings are more effective. Virtual teams that experience high levels of trust between team members often have improved team member awareness and experience improved project outcomes.
- Establish Rules. Established norms, such as the number of emails sent to other team members in a given time period, dictates how the virtual team functions. Well-established norms are crucial to virtual team efficiency and success. This is because norms and structure give team members a framework in which to work with others which would otherwise be missing in a virtual setting. Establishing team meeting ground rules before virtual team tasks have been administered has been shown to mitigate many problems and misunderstandings between team members. These rules include: fixing regular video call meetings, circulating agendas in advance of meetings, respecting time differences and cultural differences of all team members, discussing language abilities and communicating the importance of attendance during meetings.
- Undergo Training. Communication tools are especially important in virtual teams. Virtual team members need to be familiar with how to use technology and the appropriate etiquette for virtual interaction to ensure a positive team working environment. Without verbal or physical cues, communication and comprehension can often be difficult for team members. Learning to express personal emotions and comprehend others’ emotions virtually takes time. Cultural differences can also exacerbate these challenges through misinterpretation and miscommunication. These factors should be considered when constructing and managing virtual teams. Providing a learning webpage for new virtual leaders to share knowledge with veterans in real-time is one way to continuously share the knowledge. For example, at NASA, project managers have access to a “lessons learned” repository, where virtual team leaders can ask questions and get help from other virtual team leaders, creating an active knowledge center to improve leadership and facilitation practices. Organizations should also consider investing in new technologies that can potentially ease the process of collaborating with team members virtually.
- Lead Actively. At American Express, the belief among senior leaders is that “promoting and supporting” virtual teams must come from the top. Leaders should play a proactive role in leading the team by adjusting to the unique needs of individuals. Leaders of virtual teams should assign tasks that will lead to the strengthening of relationships between members. One most common example is creating situations where one team member approaches another member for assistance on a specific task. Ensuring time is allotted for teams to interact in this manner encourages stronger interpersonal relationships and more effective virtual teams. Effective team leaders also need to prompt participants to contribute to the conversation during virtual update meetings, which usually takes more effort than at in-person meetings. This can indirectly help to develop trust within the team because team members can see the interdependencies among their contributions and the impact of their contributions on the project outcome.
Read our other blogs on this study:
Part 2: Building Teams from a Distance
Part 3: Virtual Leadership