More and more I'm asked to work with teams that do not have frequent opportunity to physically get together and there are big challenges in these teams. As far back as 2001, Govindarajan and Gupta found that of 70 virtual teams studied, 82% fell short of their goals and 33% rated themselves as largely unsuccessful. Things haven't changed too much over the past few years, so how can we ensure the success of virtual teams.
Keep teams small
A key thing is to make sure that the teams are not too big. An optimum number would be between 5 and 7 as virtual teams tend to rely a lot on one-to-one contact. For each person to speak to each other person it takes 10 conversations for a team of 5 and 45 conversations for a team of 10 - a big difference...If teams are larger than this, we need to break them down into sub-teams, something that is easily replicated through the use of Metalog tools such as Pipeline, Culturallye and MarbleRun.
Help team members to get to know each other personally
Allow time at the beginning of virtual meetings for team members to talk about how they are currently feeeling about the project and why. Give them opportunities to show each other around the environments in which they work so that in later one-to-one interactions they can visualise where the other person is speaking from.
Recruit for and develop communication skills
Great inter-personal skills, needed to work effectively in any team, are even more crucial in virtual teams. They key skills required are great comunication, high levels of emotional intelligence, the ability to work alone and the resilience to handle misunderstandings and issues which will inevitably arise. Careful recruitment into virtual teams is therefore essential as is the development of these skills using tools such as RealityCheck, Communic8 and Culturallye.
Ensure goals are really clear and there are guidelines developed for group behaviour
I often use Culturallye as a lead into working on a site of guidelines for group interaction. It's really good for demonstrating how quickly cultures develop and rules that are unwritten and unspoken guide team behaviour. Following on from this, I encourage teams to develop guidelines for communciation, for example between which hours will team members be available, how quickly are they expected to get back to each other etc.
Take opportunities to actually get together face-to-face
This definitely needs to happen at the start of a project and ideally at key milestones, as a general rule at least quarterly will pay dividends in terms of a more co-ordinated approach, increased levels of trust and lack of duplications of work.
Use great technology
Even in this modern age, technology can massively get in the way of people working effectively together. Systems need to incorporate direct calling, messaging, conference calling, discussion forums and virtual team rooms. I have recently designed a way of using MarbleRun with two sub-teams in different rooms and a virtual team available via video conference able to communicate with each of the two teams instead of the teams meeting in a neutral space. This is a great way of involving team members based abroad in development workshops.
Metalog tools help greatly with the challenge of virtual teams and exercises such as MarbleRun are great for looking at maximising the quality of communication in order to harmonise work outputs of teams and individuals in different physical spaces.