The 6 Hardest Lessons Virtual Teams Have to Learn

Last Updated Jan 17, 2011 2:01 PM EST

We've said many times in this blog that creating a virtual team and helping it operate requires the same dynamics as regular, co-located teams. A new book bears that out, and points out that it's how the leader creates those dynamics that makes all the difference. Here are 6 of the key lessons virtual teams need to learn, the sooner the better.

Darleen DeRosa is one of the authors of "Virtual Team Success-A Practical Guide for Working and Leading From a Distance". In a recent interview on The Cranky Middle Manager Show, she talked about her research and what she learned. Here are the six biggest lessons she learned. They're not a big surprise, but she does offer some practical tips on putting the lessons to work:

  1. Focus on people issues: Virtual teams rise or fall on the human interactions: communication flow, trust and productivity. The leader needs to create ways for people to interact-mix your task teams, find ways to shine a spotlight on individuals and celebrate your team's successes as a team.
  2. No trust, no team: This was one of the key differentiators between high-performing teams and the rest of the pack. Make sure your team is empowered to make decisions and let them act on those decisions. Help manage conflicts before they create permanent rifts.
  3. "Soft skills" are essential: DeRosa and her partner Rick Lepsinger found that interpersonal skills make a huge difference in virtual team performance. Teams that have been through team-building and interpersonal skill development activities perform better than those that haven't. Training as a group seems to matter, individual skill development doesn't always help the team.
  4. Watch out for performance peaks: Teams that have been together a long time (more than three years) tend to be more successful than teams working together for less time. Yet many teams peak after a year and then performance levels off or even declines. Clearly define team roles and accountability. Periodically examine the team's performance by getting feedback from various stakeholders and share that feedback with the team.
  5. Create a "high touch" environment: Technology has made virtual working possible, but isn't a perfect substitute for human interaction. If you can get the team together physically, even once a year, do it. In the meantime, use a variety of tools and use rich tools like webmeetings and videoconferencing when it's appropriate to remind people that those other team members are real live humans as well, not just screen names.
  6. Virtual team leadership matters: Their research shows that leadership does, in fact, have a statistically significant correlation with team performance. Effective virtual team leaders overcome the limitations of distance by being especially sensitive to interpersonal communication and cultural factors. Real conversations have real benefits.
Listen to Darleen DeRosa on the Cranky Middle Manager Show
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