Virtual Team Failure: Six Common Reasons Why
Virtual Teams Do Not Succeed
By Rick Lepsinger
The popularity of virtual teams in today's business world keeps growing.
Mostly because new and emerging technologies have made it easier than ever,
and the potential cost savings of virtual teams is perfect for companies
trying to reduce their budgets.
Unfortunately, too many companies fail to
take the steps necessary to ensure their virtual teams are successful.
Today, more and more companies are emptying their cubicles and opting for a
virtual workforce. For many organizations the cost-cutting nature of virtual
collaboration, which allows companies to save money on office leases or
other real estate costs and decreases the need for business travel, is
simply too hard to resist at a time when budget cutting is priority one.
Unfortunately, just because there's been a boom in working virtually, this
doesn't mean companies opting to go virtual are getting it right.
In today's complex organizations it is not uncommon to have as many as 50
percent of employees working on virtual teams. It's not hard to see why.
Advances in technology have made it easier to organize and manage dispersed
groups of people. And competitive pressures and the needs of today's global
market workforce have made virtual teams a necessity for some organizations.Unfortunately, having solid business reasons for implementing a virtual
strategy does not mean that strategy is always going to be executed well.
Many companies have virtual teams that are ineffective and failing the
In an MIT study, only 18 percent of the seventy global business
virtual teams assessed were found to be highly successful.
That means a whopping 82 percent did not achieve their goals. The cause, we
believe, is that organizations are approaching working on and leading
virtual teams as if the dynamics were the same as those for colocated teams.
We found that many organizations simply recycled the same guidelines and
best practices they were using for their colocated teams and hoped for the
Frankly, that system just doesn't work. Face-to-face teams and virtual teams
are like the proverbial "apples and oranges." We saw the need for Virtual
Team Success because when we started working with various organizations that
used virtual teams, we noticed that few actually understood how to set their
virtual teams up for long-term success.
DeRosa and I have pinpointed several common reasons why virtual teams fail
that any company with virtual teams should carefully consider:
Ineffective leadership. Leadership is the factor most important to
the success of virtual teams. The warning signs of an ineffective team
leader include (1) the team is not meeting its performance objectives, and
deliverables are delayed or of poor quality, (2) relationships between the
team members and the leader are damaged, (3) the leader is not clear about
the team's direction or purpose, and (4) the team leader pays more attention
to team members who are at his/her location or whom he/she gets along with.
To be effective, team leaders in a virtual environment must be especially
sensitive to interpersonal, communication, and cultural factors to overcome
the limitations of distance. Organizations should select team leaders who
not only have the necessary technical skills but also have the team-building
and interpersonal skills required to effectively lead in a virtual
environment. If you're a team leader, get your team organized. Set goals and
establish the direction in which you'd like the team to go. And always keep
members engaged through timely feedback, team-building exercises, and
periodic face-to-face meetings.
Lack of clear goals, direction, or priorities. As with any team,
virtual or colocated, a lack of clear goals and priorities will inhibit team
performance. And because it is tougher to communicate with and inform team
members who are geographically distributed, this can be an even bigger
problem for virtual teams. The most effective virtual teams reassess goals
as priorities shift over time.
When new virtual teams are formed, the most effective teams outline team
goals and objectives immediately. A successful scenario might go something
like this: A global engineering team conducts a kickoff meeting to build
relationships and outline team goals and responsibilities. During the
meeting, the team leader clarifies team member roles and establishes how the
team will work together. Once things are underway, the leader uses virtual
meetings and regularly updates postings on the team's Intranet site to
inform team members about any updates and changes over time.
Lack of clear roles among team members. In virtual teams, it is especially
important for team members to clearly understand their individual roles,
specifically whom they report to and who reports to them. Lack of clear
accountabilities can have a huge impact on virtual teams.
High-performing virtual teams establish clear roles upfront and continually
reassess and ensure clarity of roles over time. Clarifying accountabilities
and outlining how and when team members should work together minimizes
delays and inefficiencies that are common when working virtually. One global
information technology team in our study created a "team handbook" that
provided background on each team member and clearly laid out how each person
was to contribute to the team. When questions arose during large, complex
projects, team members would consult the handbook to determine which team
member to consult with. Many of the less effective teams in our study did
not clarify roles during their launches and often failed to revisit roles as
things changed during their projects.
Lack of cooperation. When a diverse group of individuals is asked to
work together to accomplish shared objectives, it takes time to build an
atmosphere of collaboration. And because there is a lack of face-to-face
contact inherent in virtual teamwork, the process of establishing trust and
relationships can be even more arduous.
Office cliques and the conflicts that come with them can still form with
virtual teams just as they can with colocated teams. Take, for example, a
virtual team in OnPoint's study that we will call "TeamInnovate." Two-thirds
of that team's members were located in Philadelphia while the remaining
one-third were scattered in different sites around the world. Naturally, the
team members in Philadelphia developed stronger relationships with one
another than they did with the members who worked outside the main hub.
Unfortunately, this set-up led to the formation of subgroups, which began to
impede team collaboration. Several team members routinely worked together on
projects and didn't keep other team members informed. Over time, this lack
of collaboration led to a lack of trust amongst team members. The
high-performing virtual teams in OnPoint's study were more able and better
equipped to handle these kinds of conflicts than the low-performing teams.
Lack of engagement. When working virtually, it can be difficult to
assess individual team members' levels of engagement because they are in
different locations and rarely meet face-to-face. To avoid this common
problem, leaders and team members should proactively look for signs of
If you're a team leader, regularly assess your team by asking yourself the
following questions: Are all team members contributing to conversations and
projects? Are they attending and actively participating in team meetings?
Are team members motivated to take on new work, or are they feeling
overwhelmed? Are people working well together, or is there frequent and
unproductive team conflict?
Looking out for these common red flags can help prevent engagement issues
from derailing a team. With virtual teams people can easily become bored and
"check out" because there is a lack of dynamic face-to-face interaction and
because there are more distractions. So if you are a virtual team leader,
constantly assess your team members' levels of engagement. If you monitor
your team's performance to ensure that the team is always fully engaged, the
team's effectiveness will be much improved.
Inability to replicate a "high-touch" environment. Electronic technology has
made virtual teaming possible but is not a perfect substitute for human
interaction. One of the greatest performance barriers for virtual teams is
the lack of a high-touch environment.
Poor communication, lack of engagement, and lack of attention during virtual
meetings are a few of the warning signs that a high-touch environment has
not been achieved. While meeting face-to-face requires time and expense,
virtual teams who invest in one or two such meetings per year perform better
overall than those who do not. Leveraging tools such as Instant Messaging to
increase spontaneous communication can also help. We would also advise that
teams use tools such as electronic bulletin boards to create a sense of
shared space. And finally, be sure to develop a communication strategy and
continuously re-examine it to ensure everyone is comfortable with and
engaged by your communication set-up.
Given the prevalence of virtual teamwork and its importance in achieving
business objectives, we were surprised to find through our study that so
many teams are ineffective. But what was most startling is that many
companies either don't realize that their teams are underperforming, or
despite their initial investments in these teams, they don't take the time
to focus on enhancing their effectiveness. The good news is that there are
numerous strategies that organizations and team leaders can employ that will
improve the performance of their virtual teams.
Organizations that get it right know that virtual teams and colocated teams
cannot be built and managed in the same ways. The organizations that take
the time to understand exactly what they are getting into will have
substantially better odds for success than those that start their teams on a
whim without proper planning or follow-up. By educating leaders and team
members on the common pitfalls that are out there, we hope to help
organizations create strong, prosperous virtual teams.
About the Authors:
Darleen DeRosa, Ph.D., is a managing partner at OnPoint Consulting. Darleen
brings more than ten years of management consulting experience, with deep
expertise in the areas of talent/succession management, executive
assessment, virtual teams, and organizational assessment. Her client list
includes Accenture, Bayer Pharmaceuticals, Daiichi-Sankyo, Gerdau Ameristeel,
and Johnson & Johnson. Darleen received her B.A. in psychology from the
College of the Holy Cross and her M.A. and Ph.D. in social/organizational
psychology from Temple University. Darleen is a member of The Society for
Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP), METRO, and other
professional organizations. In addition to Virtual Team Success, she has
published book chapters and articles in journals such as Human Resource
Richard Lepsinger is president of OnPoint Consulting and has a
twenty-five-year track record of success as an organizational consultant and
executive. His client list includes Bayer Pharmaceuticals, Citibank,
Coca-Cola Company, ConocoPhillips, Goldman Sachs, Johnson & Johnson, NYSE
Euronext, PeopleSoft, Prudential, and Subaru of America, among many others.
In addition to writing Closing the Execution Gap, he has coauthored four
books on leadership including Flexible Leadership: Creating Value by
Balancing Multiple Challenges and Choices, The Art and Science of 360°
Feedback, The Art and Science of Competency Models: Pinpointing Critical
Success Factors in Organizations, and Virtual Team Success: A Practical
Guide for Working and Leading from a Distance, all published by Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.
In our new book, Virtual Team Success: A
Practical Guide for Working and Leading from a Distance
www.onpointconsultingllc.com, Darleen DeRosa and
I examine the growing virtual teams phenomenon and present explanations for
why virtual teams do and don't pay off for companies. The book leverages our
robust global research study and hands-on experience to provide an
immediately usable resource for virtual team members and team leaders.