Started as a simple experiment in social media, in 2010 composer and conductor Eric Whitacre called out to his online fans to record themselves singing “Sleep” by the British choir Polyphony and upload the result. Impressed by the result, he decided to push the concept to the next level by recording himself conducting ‘Lux Aurumque’, then asking fans to sing along to that. This way, the first Virtual Choir was created. The results of that experiment quickly became viral. Now with more than fifteen million views, the Virtual Choir phenomenon has reached all corners of the world, inspiring more and more singers to join each year.
Beyond its beauty and emotional impact, Virtual Choir also fascinated because its implications regarding the potential new uses for new communication technologies and as one of the first virtual experiences turned into something real. The Virtual Choir can also be considered as an important remainder for how businesses might overcome the challenges of virtuality to benefit from innovative and more efficient business processes, customer relationships or forms of production, from co-innovation and co-production to crowdsourcing, crowdfunding or open source.
Not even leaving the limits of a corporation or a company, working remotely can offer operational flexibility, happier employees and lower costs, but to team up virtually with colleagues and coworkers can also pose important challenges. As we know, truly efficient collaboration presents no few difficulties. Virtual collaboration raises even more added complications that require even more care. But as the concept of the extended enterprise becomes more common and most professionals can do their jobs from anywhere, the more critical becomes to get virtual teams right. But how?
Getting right four pillars for virtual collaboration
The answer is not easy. Different studies carried out during the last decade seem to conclude that most of virtual groups fail to satisfy the expectations of companies and their clients. In another study conducted by Deloitte some years ago most of CEO’s and other managers interviewed still considered face-to-face interaction much more productive that virtual communication, and nearly half of them admitted ignorance and confusion about collaboration technologies and their potential.
But some other experts consider is all about how these teams are managed. An Aon Consulting report found that dispersed teams, when run accordingly to this condition, could outperform those sharing the same office space (recording up to 43% higher efficiency). A study of 80 global software teams conducted by BCG and WHU-Otto Beisheim School of Management concluded that virtual teams can improve employee productivity when they are properly managed.
But, what do they mean by “properly managed” or “run accordingly to its virtual condition”? According to Keith Ferrazzi and based on his research and experience helping all sort of organizations as customers of his consulting firm, there are four critical elements to get right: right teams, right leadership, right technology and right touchpoints.
Size is important (the smaller, the better)
We have recently wrote in this blog about how important is to consider people mindset and attitude for working collaboratively beyond their professional knowledge and other skills. Ferrazzi agrees people should first of all be specially suited to work in virtual teams, backing for instance profiles with good communication skills or high emotional intelligence. But it is also equally important to put them into groups of the right size and implementing and clearly establishing and communicating the right roles for each one.
As we know, smaller groups facilitate collaboration. In the case of virtual teams, size should be even smaller than when face to face interaction is the norm (some studies suggest teams of 5-6 people and no more than 10 in any case).Team members reduce effort when they feel less responsible for output, but this fact can equally be applied to non-virtual teams. Collaboration between people not sharing a physical space should pay special attention to ensure inclusive communication, a quality harder to achieve the bigger the virtual group is.
Good leadership amplified
Managers can maximize the productivity of virtual teams also by developing the right leadership. Again, this is a quality to apply to every teamwork, no matter if virtual or not. But right leadership must be amplified in virtual ones. A study of different engineering groups concluded that the virtual teams that performed best were those with managers with previous experience in leading such work groups.
Encouraging open dialogue, for instance, is particularly important in these cases. Leaders of dispersed groups in particular must push members to be frank with one another as the problems associated with lack of affinity are more common and severe for virtual teams. For similar reasons, virtual collaboration requires an extra effort fostering trust among co-workers. Ferrazzi mentions the case of a fully virtual organization that encourage new hires to offer video tours of their workspaces, allowing colleagues to mentally picturing their surroundings in later communications. Managers also push their team members to share personal news as a way to compensate the lack of the common chat about their lives that usually takes place sooner or later when a physical office is shared.
Special care is also recommended about clarifying goals and guidelines and establishing a common purpose or vision (explaining and repeating often the reason of working together and the benefits that will result of that). Particularly vital in the case of virtual teams are guidelines about interaction between members. For instance, multitasking on conference calls should be banned, as full attention is needed when using communication technologies that are not able to fully replace the subtle signals of personal interaction beyond a voice.
Not leaving it all to virtuality
Fostering touchpoints is also critical. Virtual teams should come together as often as possible. To do so, some specific stages of the working process are more important than others. Kickoff should be one of these for sure, using a first face to face meeting to star working in some of the key points mentioned (clarifying team goals or encouraging trust, for instance). If any proper project management stablishes milestones, when dealing with virtual team leaders can leverage them to get people together for celebrating achievement of short-term goals or cracking problems.
And last but not least, efficient virtual collaboration also depends on using the right technology. According to Ferrazzi, even top-notch virtual teams can fail due to poor technology. In this case, recommendations are not so much about detailed features as about fulfilling general needs especially critical in the case virtual interactions. For instance, facilitating automatic transcriptions or records with a simple click, making easy to search for this content in a database or, while using the right tool for each mission, favor technologies that better help to reproduce face to face interaction (videoconferencing instead of a phone call, for example).