Effective virtual teams – The big picture

Key Points

  • Effective virtual teams are good at maintaining social bonds while getting the job done.
  • Coordination of tasks has a pivotal role in virtual team performance.
  • Good communication is instrumental to team cohesion and relationship building, which in turn may improve the way the team coordinates its activities.

Virtual teams use email and social media to communicate. It’s hard to think of any team that isn’t virtual to some extent. When your team are in different buildings, time-zones or cultures, traditional face-to-face management techniques may not work.

Our evidence summary on trust in virtual teams spells out the kinds of problems that make virtual teams difficult to manage, like lack of understanding and dealing with conflict. So how can we improve the effectiveness of virtual teams?

What makes virtual teams effective?

A 2008 meta-analysis by Chad Lin, Craig Standing and Ying-Chieh Liu looked at fifty studies on the key factors of virtual team effectiveness, involving over 4,000 people. They defined effectiveness as a combination of virtual team performance and team members’ satisfaction. Because the meta-analysis looked at correlations between factors and indicators of effectiveness, they did not assess the causes of virtual team effectiveness, but the associations between key factors and indicators of effectiveness. They also tested their model with a field study and a survey.

The researchers found a number of key relationships between both social factors (team cohesion and relationship building) and task-related factors (communication and coordination) with virtual team effectiveness. The infographic below shows what they found – the size of the cog represents the strength of the relationship.

Main findings

  • Coordination – sharing objectives and maintaining the focus of the team – was found to be strongly related to performance. Virtual teams that need to improve should look first at how efficiently and effectively they manage their resources and processes.
  • Communication was important in terms of enhancing the social factors, relationship building and team cohesion, which create the social environment in which objectives are achieved. Effective communication is about quality, not just quantity. For virtual teams, this means finding ways of going beyond the text of an email to engage team members more directly. The researchers suggest that new virtual teams in particular should focus on communication while the group is still forming.
  • Finally, the researchers found that the other social factors, such as trust, are also likely to influence performance.

Evaluating the effectiveness of your virtual team

Virtual teams which rely heavily or exclusively on technology to communicate have only been around for twenty years or so. Despite their ubiquity, they are still a very new way of working. The model above can provide a useful starting point for businesses looking to increase productivity and solve problems in virtual teams. But what measures can we use to manage virtual teams more effectively? Here are some examples of the questions the researchers used in their own survey.

Takeaways for practice

  • If you want to improve the performance of virtual teams look first at the coordination of work. Examine how you can better allocate your resources and improve team processes. For example, you could consider daily ‘huddles’ to review tasks just completed, current agenda and issues and opportunities to improve team working.
  • Communication underpins the social and task-based factors that drive performance throughout the life of the team. Face-to-face meetings, especially before the project begins, are likely to encourage closer bonding in the team and help to prevent misunderstandings and minimise conflict once the team is established. Engaging in activities such as virtual shared coffee breaks to catch up on non-work issues may help keep the social bonds within the team alive.
  • Good communication means better coordination. Effective communication is both clear (which means leaving no room for confusion), and concise (providing maximum information in as few words as possible).
  • Consider how other social factors, such as trust, can affect team function and performance – and take action to develop them.

Unanswered questions

This research is about relationships between aspects of how virtual teams function. It doesn’t address whether you can have too much of a good thing. So, for example, at what point could communication become counter-productive? Are there tasks, like brainstorming, where excessive coordination might adversely affect performance?

Trustworthiness score

This was a meta-analysis of cross sectional studies and we give it a trustworthiness score of 80%, meaning that there is a 20% chance that the findings were due to other factors or random chance. While the field study and survey may improve the ‘real world’ application of the material, it does not affect the overall trustworthiness score.

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

We aim to provide you only the best available scientific evidence to inform your decisions.

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Chad Lin, Craig Standing & Ying-Chieh Liu (2008). A model to develop effective virtual teams. Decision Support Systems, Vol 45, 1031-1045

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