UNC Kenan-Flagler Insights

How to build a successful virtual team

October 25, 2011 By Heather Harreld

“The use of virtual teams in organizations has exploded in recent years, and all indications are that it will continue to grow,” notes Kip Kelly, director of marketing and business development of Executive Development at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Arvind Malhotra, associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at UNC Kenan-Flagler, agrees; virtual teams are here to stay. Malhorta says organizations realized more than 15 years ago that business travel takes away from productivity and increases costs. The faltering economy was “the final momentum builder,” according to Malhorta, firmly entrenching virtual teams in most corporate structures.

 

There are other factors have caused the rise of virtual teams, but increasingly sophisticated technology made it possible, and globalization made it necessary. Once virtual teams were launched, executives noticed an unanticipated bonus: successful virtual teams are more productive. According to research by Aon Hewitt, the productivity of effective virtual teams tends to increase from 10 to 43 percent, depending on the industry and the organization.

The Pros of Virtual Teams

Virtual teams offer flexibility, reduce time-to-market, attract better employees and increase knowledge sharing. Global virtual teams allow organizations to garner talent from all parts of the world and save money on travel.

Virtual teams are not only attractive to employers, they’re green too. According to the Telework Research Network, the existing 2.9 million U.S. telecommuters save 390 million gallons of gas and prevent the release of 3.6 million tons of greenhouse gases annually.

Virtual Team Challenges

There are challenges inherent in virtual teamwork. Research has shown that it is difficult to build rapport and trust and to manage conflict when team members lack the ability to interact face-to-face on a regular basis. Communication is also more challenging, particularly among global virtual teams, which can make it difficult to overcome cultural barriers. There is often a lack of collegiality among team members because they feel they don’t have enough time during virtual meetings to build relationships. The lack of trust and collegiality often makes it more difficult to express opinions and to make decisions than in conventional teams.

These challenges, though, are not insurmountable. The proper selection and training of virtual team talent, the use of the appropriate technologies and the support of virtual teams by senior leaders can turn these challenges into opportunities.

The Characteristics of Effective Virtual Teams

Research by Lynda Gratton and Tamara Erickson (2007) found that successful virtual teams shared the following characteristics:

 

  1. Executive support: Virtual teams do well when executives support the development of social relationships at work (thereby building trust among colleagues) and demonstrate collaboration.
  2. Effective HR practices: Two particular HR practices can improve team performance; training in skills to build collaborative behavior and informal community building.
  3. The right team members: Selecting the right people to serve on virtual teams is critical to its success. T.H. Ong, vice president, Americas and Asian Pacific for Global Integrations, Inc., believes the best virtual workers thrive in interdependent work relationships, are self-reliant and self-motivated. Good virtual team members tend to like or tolerate ambiguity and are independent thinkers willing to take initiative. Most importantly, Ong notes, good virtual workers have strong communication skills.
  4. Strong team leaders: For virtual teams to succeed, strong leaders are a must. The skills and abilities needed for managers of conventional teams are similar to those needed for leaders of virtual teams, but there are a few key differences. Virtual teams don’t have the benefit of frequent face-to-face interaction and can experience difficulty building trust and rapport among team members. To help foster trust and rapport, virtual team leaders must focus on relationship building, demonstrate excellent communication skills (including the ability to provide frequent feedback), and have emotional intelligence.

 

It is inevitable that organizations seeking to leverage the strengths of their globally dispersed workforces will do so by forming virtual teams. Successful virtual teams can increase productivity, lower operating costs and speed the time to market. Virtual team members and leaders, however, face unique challenges when compared with conventional work teams. Senior leaders can foster the success of their virtual teams by ensuring the teams have the right team members and managers and by supporting an organizational culture that embraces virtual teams.