Reasons for Failure of Virtual Teams

Last year Bob Stuart was given the ‘Best Team Leader’ award because his team had delivered all the milestones accurately and on-time. Along with the award, he was also a given a greater responsibility of leading a bigger and more diverse team whose members were located in 3 different countries. But this year not only that Bob’s name was nowhere found on the nomination list of best team leader award but his team could not even meet the project milestones. Do you also find yourself in a similar situation? If yes then this article has just the information you were waiting all along to pull you out of this not so desired situation.

With the growing need for shorter cycle time, enhanced innovation, lower operating costs and leveraging global talent, virtual teams comes as a solution. Virtual teams give the much desired competitive edge to the organizations in this fierce business scenario. Though many organizations adopt virtual teams but only few are able to squeeze its juice while the remaining only witness worse results. This article attempts to summarize the six underlying reasons for the failure of virtual teams.

  1. No Differential Treatment to the Dynamics of Virtual Team - Just like the aforementioned case, many organizations do not acknowledge the greater complexity of a virtual team in terms of time, distance and culture differences. No training or orientation is imparted to either the leaders or the members of the virtual team. It is widely believed that virtual team is just another type of team.

  2. Role & Process Ambiguity - Most of the members of virtual teams lack the clarity of either their task roles or their relational roles or even both. They do not know what specific activities they need to perform and what would be their outcome. Moreover due to the absence of face to face interactions members are unable to build workplace relationships which are so vital for information sharing and trust. The uncertainty about the performance criteria as well as the career path is always there to haunt the members. All this causes confusion in terms of who all are on the team, who needs to perform what activities, how is one’s role dependent on the other etc. negatively effecting productivity and timelines.

  3. Ineffective Leadership - Bob Stuart comes across as an ineffective virtual team leader even though last year he won the ‘best leader award’. Leaders do not adopt new leadership tools when it comes to virtual team. So if one continues to communicate with pigeons or post cards in today’s fast paced world when there are emails and SMS, he is doomed to fail. In addition to the technical skills a virtual team leader requires strong interpersonal and team building skills which aid integration of dispersed virtual team members towards shared goal.

  4. Lack of Trust - Trust is the vital force to determine the success of virtual team. The socialization process intrinsic to the development of trust in a team is absent in the virtual team environment. Lack of trust at the level of either the team member or the team leader results in low relational commitment and high conflicts evident in low productivity and performance of the team.

  5. Poor Team Engagement - Engaging a team member is so easy in traditional environment - take the member for a cup of coffee and give an informal feedback, as you pass his cubicle ask him to share his personal thoughts on the new product design or on the action plan decided in the last meetings. But all this is not possible when your team member is sitting in a different continent and he sleeps when you work or vice-versa. Members only come together to perform their tasks with all the meetings and discussion centered on the job. Members build their own perceptions about the other team members, decisions taken etc. This could be a silent killer for the functioning of a virtual team.

  6. Lack of Effective Communication - In the virtual team environment there is a lack of nonverbal visual cues which are so central to building trust among the members. Though there are myriad of communication tools such as emails, videoconferencing, instant messaging, phone etc. but one needs to have a knack for what, when and how to use them in order to ensure effectiveness. Many a times, members are left on their own without any constant progress updates about the project, clear and detailed responsibilities and timelines. They are not given a view of the bigger picture of how the work done by them is adding value to the overall project or organization.

There are specific behaviors which demonstrate disengagement of the virtual team members such as frequent absence from team calls, lesser participation in team meetings and no interest in sharing information with the other team members or in overall project progress. If you witness any of these, know for sure that it is time you need to overhaul the virtual team management approach so as to emerge successful. The disengaged or dysfunctional team could be due to any of the pitfalls discussed above. Rather than rectifying when the problems crystallize, you need to take pre-emptive measures right from the formative stage of virtual teams. Don’t be another Bob Stuart!


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