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More and more organizations are tapping into the benefits of virtual teams to achieve cost efficiencies, greater flexibility and faster turnaround times for complex projects. Managing an international virtual team has numerous challenges associated with physical, temporal and cultural distance, yet, in many industries, global virtual teams are fast becoming organizations’ raison d’etre, a new form of organizing work that helps both large and small firms quickly respond to global client demands and outperform their more traditionally focused competitors. Rapid, flexible and innovative solutions are a real possibility with global virtual teams. When managed the right way, global virtual teams can outperform traditional project teams. They can be used to bring people together across an organization’s global locations, who would not normally be able to meet. They can tap into and combine resources – ideas, expertise, information, people and technologies – across functions, departments and layers in different countries that would otherwise be very expensive to do. And, by doing so, they can achieve greater creativity, innovativeness and performance. How can a global virtual team achieve its maximum potential to unleash creative and innovative performance-enhancing solutions? Based on our own research on hundreds of global virtual teams over the years, there are three key factors that interact and have the potential either to provoke underperformance or to generate exceptional performance.
Diversity of backgrounds, nationalities, attitudes, expectations, values and other characteristics can make or break the team from the start. A different understanding by team members of just about anything that occurs in the team can quickly escalate into an irreparable misunderstanding. Delays in communication may also cause minor issues to linger and potentially lead to conflict. However, diversity also has the ability to amplify the team’s creative potential. Different ideas, backgrounds, experiences and skills across different countries can have a positive multiplier effect. But leveraging diversity is not that easy. It is important that team members, and leaders especially, have some degree of sensitivity to diversity and cultural differences. In other words, they must possess cultural intelligence.
Trust is important in any team, but it is extremely so in global virtual teams. When so much communication takes place remotely, asynchronously, and when members cannot always see one another, the phrase “say what you mean and mean what you say” takes on a new meaning. Just like the paradox of diversity, trust in global virtual teams can be built almost instantly, or it can become almost impossible to attain. And it is as much affected by diversity and the team’s ability to meld differences, as by the type of leadership in the team.
We have often seen leaders of global virtual teams throw their arms up in frustration and complain that no matter what approach they take, they just cannot bring the team members together, meet their individual expectations and worry about key project goals at the same time. Different preferences for communicating, coordinating activities, supervising the work, setting goals, interacting and approaching the task by team members were just some of the challenges team leaders needed to juggle. Adapting one’s style to suit all team members seems impossible for one team leader, especially when deadlines await. And trying different approaches takes time. Global virtual team leaders should not hesitate to release the reins when needed and allow another member, who has the expertise or can meet members’ culture-driven expectations, to step in. Sometimes, sharing leadership with the team is the best solution in global virtual teams; empowering team members to own the team process and be proactive can lead to more team innovation than when a leader tries to be all things to all members. There is no formula for global virtual team success. However, leveraging diversity, developing trust and sharing leadership when necessary in global virtual teams are three potential challenges that, when overcome, could transform the global team from one in which people feel thrown together to complete the project, to one in which members combine their unique and diverse resources to generate innovative solutions that set the firm apart from the competition.