Virtual Teams Can Outperform Traditional Teams
by Keith Ferrazzi
When I visit companies, it’s one of the most frequent complaints I hear: “I’m working on a project with people I’ve never met.” Or: “This virtual team I’m on is a disaster — nobody really knows what the other is doing.” Many of us have found ourselves thrown onto project teams in which we must work with others across several time zones and even different countries. It’s common to assume that such dispersion will necessarily lead to big inefficiencies and degraded performance. Not so fast!
Teams can be highly effective even when members have never met in person. In fact, virtual teams can actually outperform traditional co-located groups. An extensive study of 80 software development teams with programmers from the United States, South America, Europe, and Asia proved that virtual teams can lead to increased efficiency and better business results, but only if they are managed to maximize the potential benefits while minimizing the disadvantages. Why can virtual project teams outperform traditional ones? There are several reasons, including:
- They can enlist the best expertise from any location. This is particularly important for large corporations like General Electric, IBM, and SAP that have research labs and “centers of excellence” scattered around the world.
- They can reduce the cycle time of projects by shrewd use of a “follow the sun” schedule. At the close of their day, team members in Boston, say, can leave a list of “to do” items for their counterparts in Shanghai, who will then work on resolving those issues while the Bostonians are fast asleep.
- They can tap a diversity of input, especially from those individuals who work closest to customers in overseas markets.
But here’s the rub. Dispersed teams can outperform co-located ones only if — and this is a big “if” — they are managed properly. Here are a few guidelines:
1. Put processes in place. Of course, all project teams need the right processes to control how work gets done — coordinating who will do what, how decisions will be made, what will happen when people aren’t pulling their weight, and so on. But co-located teams can sometimes get away with sloppy management, whereas virtual teams have little margin for error. Often times, for instance, a team leader will be unaware of a problem until it’s festered and become a major crisis. To prevent that, the team should use two or three metrics to chart its progress. For a software project, useful metrics might be lines of code that have been written and bugs per line.
2. Communicate less — but in the right ways. Many managers of virtual teams mistakenly assume that more communications — weekly project meetings, e-mail updates, etc. — are better to ensure that everyone is on the same page. But this can easily lead to an information overload that people tune out. Instead, the key is the quality and predictability of the communications. For example, a common problem in virtual teams is that some members don’t respond promptly to e-mails, leaving important issues to slip through the cracks. Team rules and policies can specify how quickly people need to respond to any specific queries or requests for action, and list the steps that should be taken to follow-up when someone has been slow to respond.
3. Keep conflicts focused on tasks. Team conflict is not necessarily bad, because it can eventually lead to better solutions. But conflicts too easily escalate and become personal within virtual teams because of a lack of empathy, trust, and camaraderie among the dispersed members. That’s why some experts recommend various social-bonding practices, such as team members taking virtual coffee breaks together, exchanging personal as well as professional information through a social-media platform, and doing a quick “Take 5” before meetings so that team people can share what’s going on in their lives.
Working across time zones (and even across different cultures and languages) does not necessarily result in a drop in performance. Indeed, it can lead to increased efficiency and better business results if the dispersion is managed such that it becomes a valuable advantage, rather than a crippling liability.