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Managing virtual teams for peak performance

In the 2012 study “Untapped Potential of Virtual Teams,” Siemens Enterprise Communications designed and executed a research survey generating responses from nine countries, covering North America, Latin America, and Western Europe. The goal of the survey was to find the real-time problems companies struggle with that involve virtual teams and their effect on operations, efficiency, and the overall bottom line. The results shows that:

  • More than four in 10 virtual team members always or frequently feel frustrated or overwhelmed by the complexity of disconnected communications technologies
  • Only about half of the respondents experience success in establishing trust and maintaining fluid dialog among team members using the tools they have
  • 75% find their team members more likely to get distracted during “virtual” meetings, and 34% find remote team members often “loafing,” or not doing their share

How can companies create trust, commitment, engagement, and effective communication among virtual team members—especially when faced with the very real obstacles of time differences, varying levels of technology proficiency, and conflicts in scheduling?

Manage Processes For Better Virtual Collaboration

A 2009 study by MIT Sloan School Professor Mark Mortensen and Harvard Business School Professor Tsedal Beyene, “Understanding Virtual Team Performance: A Synthesis of Research on the Effects of Team Design, Processes, and States,” reveals that dispersed teams within companies do, under specific circumstances, outperform colocated teams. The secret to managing virtual teams to increase productivity and decrease inefficiency lies in task assignments and socio-emotional processes.

Task related processes are those that distribute specific tasks across the team in order to produce an overall measurable goal (and make sure everyone in the team is contributing their fair share). According to the study, dispersed teams with high levels of task-related processes most often outperform co-located teams with similar levels of those same processes.

Socio-emotional processes are those that increase the cohesion of the group—good old-fashioned team bonding. 

The Importance of Direct and Reflected Knowledge to Managing Dispersion

While companies can do their best to manage cross cultural virtual teams effectively using technology, Mortensen and Beyene recommend making sure that onsite interaction—meetings where virtual teams and home-base teams interact in person—are part of the overall team management. Mortensen explains that the “benefits of ‘direct’ knowledge typically include information about the other site’s location, such as norms, roles, culture, work processes, people, relationships, and even physical space.” This kind of information is invaluable in terms of establishing trust, making time spent in virtual communications more effective and efficient later on.

Mortensen and Beyene also identified a second equally important, but often overlooked form of awareness, which they call “reflected” knowledge. Reflected knowledge is how the satellite offices located in other countries view the home base office. Reflective knowledge gives you the ability to avoid misunderstandings as well as the tools to adjust your behavior.

With the rise of technologies created to help manage telepresence for virtual teams, reflected knowledge is a particularly important issue, as technology is currently unequipped to provide the full breadth of reflected information gained while on site.

Give Your Virtual Team the Tools

The next best thing to direct interaction is telepresence. The most productive virtual team workspaces go beyond the typical folder of documents shared in the cloud. Successful virtual teams promote:

  • Video and phone meetings whenever possible. In general, email and IM are the least preferred forms of communication as emails are inefficient and open to misinterpretation, and IM can be too distracting
  • Prominent tracking systems for recording and sharing all meetings and discussions for all team members
  • Visible team member profiles, including contact information as well as pictures, accomplishments, areas of expertise, and interests
  • Thorough training on the chosen technology that teams use to communicate and manage progress, such as Skype or Basecamp
  • The freedom to communicate. It is vital to create a space for the virtual team members to feel confident communicating what they need in order to perform their tasks and meet deadlines successfully.

While conventional wisdom suggests that the performance of teams suffers with dispersion, remote collaboration can provide substantial benefits. Managed the right way, virtual teams can outperform their colocated counterparts. With the right task and socio-emotional processes in place, companies can reap the full rewards of their cultural and structural diversity.

Mark Mortensen is an Assistant Professor in Behavioral Policy Science area at MIT Sloan School.