One focus of JERA Partnerships is Behaviors of Cohesive Teams.  Unfortunately, Virtual Teams (VT’s) seem to find this to be more of an issue then their collocated counterparts. There are several components that need to be in place in order to create cohesive and sustainable virtual teams. Part One will cover the first three components to consider when building a Virtual Team.

The Hi-Five of a Cohesive Team Are:

  1. Team Size
  2. Team Structure
  3. Team Composition
  4. Qualified Leadership
  5. Qualified Team Members

 

  1. TEAM SIZE

Many organizations, when building a virtual team, decide to include individuals from every department that may be impacted by the team’s ultimate solution. These good intentions are based upon a desire to give every department a voice, but this is extremely unfair to the team and their leader.  History, such as it is considering the short experience we’ve had with virtual teams, indicates that “Small is Beautiful”.  Most cohesive and successful teams consist of fewer than 10-12 people – and smaller then that is even better.

Smaller teams are more effective for a number of reasons.  The obvious one is that communication challenges grow exponentially as team size increases – just do the math.  If there are 5 people on the team, there are 10 possible team member connections that can occur.  When teams grow and reach the recommended maximum of 12 people, the needed team connections quickly jump to 66. So, by slightly more than doubling the size of the team, there is over a 6-fold increase in needed personal connections. Larger teams require an exponential increase in communication connections and quickly become unwieldy.  As virtual teams grow, in the absence of face time in the office, individuals begin to feel left out and productivity begins to decline.  Additionally, as teams grow, many will feel they have no real stake in the success of the team and feel less accountable for the accomplishment of the project.  This is known as “Social Loafing” and occurs as people reduce effort when they feel less responsible.

  1. TEAM STRUCTURE

So, how can a small virtual team tackle large projects without expanding?  Those charged with the day-to-day functioning of a project or operation remain small and two advisory teams are co-created in support of the virtual team. One team consists of those responsible for the overall strategy and the other is composed of individuals or groups who are brought together for their specialized expertise.  Both are called upon by the team leaders or team members “as needed” and are not part of the day-to-day functioning of the team.

Probably one of the biggest issues related to Virtual Team structure, especially for temporary or transient project teams, is that team leaders seldom have the authority needed to properly execute their strategy and find it difficult holding team members to account.  Unfortunately, most virtual project team members are not evaluated on their contributions to the virtual teams and many times are seen as being “on loan” to the virtual team by the various departments in the organization.  This is further complicated and institutionalized when team members get materially compensated and rewarded, primarily or only, for work within their designated department during reviews and evaluations.  This creates a structural disincentive within the Virtual Team and handicaps the leader, the team members, and the success of the project.

  1. TEAM COMPOSITION

Team composition is critical to the success of virtual teams, after all, these are the people charged with getting “it” done.  Virtual teams MUST be planned and not simply “chosen”.  These teams must consist of individuals who are identified as having both the skillsets suited to meeting the project requirements as well as the ability to operate in a VT environment. Stated simply, not everyone is suited to lead or operate in a virtual work environment. This will be discussed further in Part 2 of this article.

There should never be any “honorary” team members included on the team.  If there are individuals that “must” be included on the project, for reasons not directly related to the project requirements, they may more naturally belong in the strategy team or special resources groups where they can make successful and targeted contributions. People having the right temperament and skills, regardless of standing or title, are those needed on these types of teams.  Egos must be checked at the door when constructing teams in an environment where an employee’s manager may become part of his/her staff on the next project.

When creating a VT, behavioral interviews along with effective personality and team assessments, are of great value.  This is even more important if someone inherits an intact team – especially one perceived to be under performing. The use of sound assessments will provide leaders with the information needed to unify the team and identify needed training in skills that are missing, but leaders must always be prepared to consider reassignment for those not making progress. If not, unequal workloads become the norm and questions about co-worker work ethics and efforts begin to surface, team morale will suffer, and resentments will quickly undermine the team.

Finally, the qualifications of all team members should be shared with the team.  This is not only a good way to vet the final team composition to those creating the team, but it lets each team member know why they and their co-workers were chosen.  Inclusion on the VT team should never be voluntary, honorary or considered outside the normal job – it is the job.

In Part Two, the impact of Qualified Leaders and Team Members in building a cohesive team will be discussed.

 

The above is one of a series of articles discussing the creation, development, and care of effective dispersed or virtual teams.  David spent 18 years working in these types of teams, from individual contributor to Director of a team of field based engineers and support staff.  These articles are based upon his successful experiences both leading and participating in virtual teams.