We are at an interesting crossroad in history. Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with a decade-long trend of more dispersed work teams, created a critical challenge to team performance. The ability for teams to meet face-to-face is no longer the norm, let alone a possibility, for most.
Can virtual teams be as effective as more traditional co-located teams? Does the inability to interact together physically make high performance impossible?
In our experience, virtual teams have one key advantage over traditional teams: most virtual teams are more diverse than the typical co-located team and offer different perspectives and experiences to better innovate and find creative solutions to problems. On the flip side, these differences can be a liability if team members don’t appreciate them or can’t overcome the challenges of collaborating across the boundaries of time and space. If team members can’t communicate and work together smoothly, the team’s performance will be weaker than that of a traditional team. If they can, they will achieve superior performance.
According to our research, the most effective virtual teams share four “people-oriented” characteristics:
- Style Diversity. Team members appreciate and take advantage of differences in interpersonal style.
- Shared Norms. They have a clear set of ground rules for how people treat one another within the team.
- Mutual Support. They feel interdependent, and people feel supported. This creates trust, an essential factor in the ability to collaborate effectively.
- Communication Processes. They have a shared understanding of communication roles and develop communication practices that facilitate sharing information and resolving conflicts.
When managers make a special effort to ensure that virtual team members have these four skills, versus focusing only on task and technology concerns, they will see a higher payoff. With these capabilities as a foundation for working together, virtual teams can function as effectively, or even more effectively, than co-located teams, leveraging all the benefits of their valuable differences.
What kinds of communication problems have you experienced as a member or manager of a virtual team? Have you worked with a virtual team that was especially effective at collaborating to get things done? Let us know about your experiences.