When it comes to working on a virtual team, particularly a globally dispersed team, there are two great truths:
- The greater the spans of time, distance, technology, and culture, the more complex it is for team members to work effectively together.
- The more that team members must rely on one another to achieve results, the greater the need for trust and alignment behind the team purpose.
All members of virtual teams must understand the challenges presented by complexity and reliance. As explained in AMA’s The Successful Virtual Team Member course, individual contributors must develop the communication and relationship-building skills needed to be effective and reliable team members.
The complexity challenge of virtual teams
When we refer to the complexity of virtual teams, we are acknowledging the differences among team members related to time zones, geographical distance, access to communications and collaboration technology, and national cultures.
How complex is your team? If you answer yes to a majority of these questions, you are a member of a team with high complexity:
- Do your team members reside in more than two countries?
- Do you communicate with members across time zones that are more than six hours apart?
- Are there more than two national cultures represented by your team?
- Are there more than two native languages represented by your team?
- Are there more than two functional areas of your organization represented by your team?
- Are there differences in access to communication and collaboration technology based on team member location?
A high level of complexity challenges leaders to find different ways to build trust, communicate, and achieve results. The old “command and control” leadership approach does not work in these situations.
The reliance challenge of virtual teams
The second great truth is that virtual team members must develop the ability to create trusting relationships with one another, usually without the benefit of meeting face-to-face. It takes more time and effort to develop high levels of trust from a distance. And trust is critical when team members must rely on one another to complete their portions of a work product so that the overall team accomplishes its intended goals.
Reliance describes the level of interdependence among team members. Some teams have members who are located in the same or different countries, but each team member works relatively independently. For example, a group of pharmaceutical sales representatives may work out of their homes but report to the same regional manager. While they may occasionally have virtual team meetings and share information, their sales results are not dependent on the sales of other representatives.
How much reliance is reflected in your team? If you answer yes to a majority of these questions, you are part of a team with high reliance:
- Do your team members need to frequently communicate as a full group to make decisions?
- Must your team members rely upon the expertise of other members to complete tasks?
- Does your team need access to all documents and information at all times?
- Must your team members collaborate to successfully complete projects?
- Are leadership responsibilities shared among team members (versus a single leader)?
- Is compensation based on team and individual performance?
Virtual team processes
Virtual teams require greater flexibility from leaders and members due to the complexity and reliance differences. The key is to identify which factors are most influential and then put in place explicit work processes that clarify team goals, team member accountabilities, and ways to engage team members so that they are focused on accomplishing their tasks despite the distractions of virtual work. As the team’s work progresses, these processes will likely need to be revisited and adapted periodically, but it’s always best to begin with clarity.
Adapted, with permission, from Literally Virtually: Making Virtual Teams Work, by Lee Johnsen. Copyright 2018, Lee Johnsen. Published by Child of the Prairie.
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To be a successful member of a virtual team, you must establish your presence and communicate effectively in a virtual realm, build strong virtual team relationships, and collaborate with success.