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.
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