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Virtual Teams: 7 Tips For Building High Performance

Zafer Sahinoglu, PhD is a Management Consultant at Mitsubishi Electric USA in Cambridge, MA and a member of the MIT Executive MBA class of 2013.

In today’s world, working in virtual teams is often a fact of life. Employees from different divisions, different functions, and oftentimes different locations need to effectively work together to solve problems and innovate for their companies.

However, many of these teams break down into dysfunction, finding it difficult to navigate differences in work style, culture, and language. What can teams do to improve their chances of success?

Working on a virtual team for my GO-Lab project in MIT Sloan’s EMBA program, we faced many of the challenges common to virtual teams. In that project we worked with a telecommunications service provider in Turkey to analyze the industry as well as their threats and opportunities. We also were asked to develop a business and technology strategy to help the company stay competitive. My team of five EMBA students was comprised of executives located in Boston and New York with different backgrounds, including a lawyer, cardiologist, scientist, and two engineers.

Here are some of the lessons I learned from that experience, as well as from my MIT Sloan management classes, about keeping virtual teams on track.

1. Foster Diverse Perspectives

When you are forming a team, it is important that some members bring domain expertise to the table, and others bring broad perspectives. The domain expertise helps establish credibility while people without this type of expertise are also important as they contribute unbiased thinking. In our GO-Lab project, we had both types of members. Some team members were experts in the telecommunications industry, but we also had non-experts who were everyday users of the technology and could provide neutral feedback.

2. Stay Focused on Your Goal

Keep a strong focus on the project’s goal. It’s easy to get off-track based on team members’ individual comfort levels and preferences. However, at the end of the day, the client (or your company) is asking you to solve a specific problem. Feel free to go above and beyond, but make sure you solve the requested problem.

3. Match People with Skills

As soon as you form a team, learn the capabilities and weaknesses of your team members.  Critical to the success of the project is how well-matched a particular team member is to the tasks he/she has been assigned.
Although it is common for people to nominate themselves for specific tasks at the beginning of a project, the project leader needs to be vigilant of individual team member’s performances and make timely adjustments as necessary.

4. Consistency Trumps Equality

While it might be tempting to share the leadership of a long-term project between multiple people, it can be a trap. Choosing one leader who can manage the project from beginning to end provides consistency and avoids power struggles. Changing leaders at various points in a project (unless necessary for performance reasons) can lead to inefficiencies and perhaps mixed loyalties.

5. Commitment is More Powerful than Compliance

Commitment is the best source of motivation. Without commitment, rules and regulations, albeit written on paper, are meaningless. You can elicit high performance from team members by both getting them excited about the project, and also by ensuring that they genuinely enjoy working together.

The latter is perhaps the most challenging aspect of working in a virtual team. After all, if everyone is located around the country or the world, you cannot organize social events such as a Friday night happy hour to foster camaraderie.  Therefore, seek out alternative ways to build friendship among team members

6. Match Tools to the Job

Team members who are coming together from different parts of a large company – or from different companies – are probably used to working with different project management platforms, software, and tools. Look at the job at hand to see what tools will work best for the job (e.g., Dropbox versus Microsoft Notes, Microsoft Word versus Latex editor).

7. Communicate, Communicate, and Communicate!

The more a team can connect, the more productive it becomes. Use videoconferencing at least once a week, and organize in-person meetings as often as possible.

When problems arise, encourage team members to address the issues openly and honestly to find a solution. One recommendation is for a team leader to "check in" individually with each team member on a regular basis to identify conflicts and act as a mediator to keep overall progress on track.

What challenges and opportunities have you faced working on a virtual team? How did you address those issues? What steps do you take to keep virtual teams on track?

Originally Published: MIT Executive Insights Blog
Author: Zafer Sahinoglu