Virtual teams, groups of diverse and geographically dispersed people communicating mainly by technology, pose challenges for companies. They can deliver superior performance and become an important source of value creation, but they demand a new management and leadership approach. Organizations that apply the ‘rules’ for classic or traditional teams will be disappointed.
Virtual teams, made necessary by globalization and possible by technology, are now common in business. They’ve taken over traditional functions such as procurement, manufacturing, IT and finance, as well as newer activities such as global supply chain and global service delivery. They’re often assembled for new-product development and R&D. And they’re increasingly found at the very top of organizations. (The virtual HQ is becoming the norm for multinational companies.)
Providing access to distant and context-specific knowledge that can be combined as customer insight and innovation, virtual teams are capable of contributing as much to organizations as their classic or traditional counterparts. But they have a serious disadvantage. They are, at root, an artificial form of human collaboration that limits the opportunities to share knowledge and, crucially, build momentum and trust. Evolution did not prepare us for working remotely from others. The classic team, where members are ‘confluent and co-located’, comes more naturally to us.
How, then, can virtual teams be effectively led and managed? Classic models for teamwork such as ‘forming, storming, norming and performing’ won’t apply. Research over the past 20 or so years suggests a different approach is needed — one that ‘designs in’ structures and processes that compensate for the ‘unnatural nature’ of virtual teams. Recommendations include:
Approaches like these will help virtual teams to become greater than the sum of their individual parts. Without them, a virtual team is likely to be very slow to integrate knowledge — and, potentially, at least, a drain on a company’s resources.
Understanding virtual teams — and the conditions in which they work — could soon be seen as a core leadership competence.
There are two key points for senior leaders — and those who aspire to be senior leaders — to bear in mind:
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