“Virtual” teams—ones made up of people in different physical locations—are on the rise. As companies expand geographically and as telecommuting becomes more common, work groups often span far-flung offices, shared workspaces, private homes, and hotel rooms. When my firm, Ferrazzi Greenlight, recently surveyed 1,700 knowledge workers, 79% reported working always or frequently in dispersed teams. Armed with laptops, Wi-Fi, and mobile phones, most professionals can do their jobs from anywhere.
The appeal of forming virtual teams is clear. Employees can manage their work and personal lives more flexibly, and they have the opportunity to interact with colleagues around the world. Companies can use the best and lowest-cost global talent and significantly reduce their real estate costs.
But virtual teams are hard to get right. In their seminal 2001 study of 70 such groups, professors Vijay Govindarajan and Anil Gupta found that 82% fell short of their goals and 33% rated themselves as largely unsuccessful. A 2005 Deloitte studyof IT projects outsourced to virtual work groups found that 66% failed to satisfy the clients’ requirements. And in our research, we’ve discovered that most people consider virtual communication less productive than face-to-face interaction, and nearly half admit to feeling confused and overwhelmed by collaboration technology.
There is good news, however. A 2009 study of 80 global software teams by authors from BCG and WHU-Otto Beisheim School of Management indicates that well-managed dispersed teams can actually outperform those that share office space. Similarly, an Aon Consulting report noted that using virtual teams can improve employee productivity; some organizations have seen gains of up to 43%.
So how do you create and lead an effective virtual team? There’s a lot of advice out there, but through our research and our experience helping organizations navigate collaboration challenges, we’ve concluded that there are four must-haves: the right team, the right leadership, the right touchpoints, and the right technology. By following simple high-return practices for each, managers can maximize the productivity of teams they must lead virtually.
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