Teamwork is not just about improving morale and productivity; it’s a competitive strategy that drives real business results. But how can virtual teams produce the same business value if telecommuting undermines teamwork?
Studies show that teamwork and collaboration can improve communication by 50 percent, reduce time to market by 20 percent, and even increase instances of successful innovation by 15 percent, according to “From Me to We,” the latest infographic from collaboration software and services provider PGi.
On the other hand, over the past several years, big companies have yanked their telecommuting programs primarily because they believed that the distance damaged collaboration. After all, how can telecommuters trust teammates they never see, stay in the loop when they miss office conversations, and increase productivity if they can’t connect?
Does telecommuting hurt teamwork?
The Science of Teamwork Debunks the Myth
Before you make assumptions about what’s bad for teams, first take a look at what you need to build successful teams. Here’s what science has to say about what drives effective teamwork:
- Psychologists have identified characteristics like cooperation and coordination as essential to teamwork and report that high-performing teams typically demonstrate a shared trust, purpose and understanding of team norms and mental processes.
- In a roundup of teamwork research published in Inc., experts say that great team dynamics are built on a foundation of team building exercises, non-work communication, diversity and social sensitivity.
- According to studies published in The New York Times, the smartest teams exhibit two strong characteristics: their members all equally contribute and collectively score high in reading emotions.
None of the experts point to physical “togetherness” as vital for teamwork to happen. In fact, the Inc. article adds that teams that brainstorm online instead of face-to-face excel in generating new ideas and solving problems.
And The New York Times article goes on to note that virtual teams demonstrate the same level of collective intelligence as in-office teams. So long as the key ingredients are present, teamwork is successful regardless of whether it is orchestrated in person or online.
Another commonly cited study in the MIT Sloan Management Review reaffirms that processes matter far more than location in order for teams to work together. With the right processes and management in place, the study found that dispersed teams can even outperform in-office teams.
So Why Do Some Virtual Teams Crumble?
Why then do some companies feel that teamwork fails when employees telecommute? The problem is that managers don’t put new processes in place (or don’t take them far enough) to ensure that virtual teams succeed.
And instead of trying something new (clarifying the work-from-home policy, implementing new collaboration software, creating communication guidelines, trying virtual team building activities), many managers simply give up.
Albert Einstein would call that insanity: doing the same thing you would do in an office with a virtual team and expecting different results.
The truth is managing a virtual team is different from managing teams that sit in an office together, which means they require new ways to communicate, manage team projects, bond, and resolve conflicts. What isn’t different is what they can accomplish and achieve together—science proves it.
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