From the December 1997 issue of Entrepreneur

"Virtual teaming is how I've built this business. My team members love it, my clients are happy and my business keeps growing," says Karen Settle, founder and CEO of Las Vegas-based Keystone Marketing Specialists Inc. Settle manages 300 team members scattered across the country who rarely get together in the same physical place. But Keystone, which provides field representatives and holds in-store product demonstrations on behalf of Fujitsu, Kodak, and other high-tech companies, now boasts more than $5 million in annual sales. "I see only positives about virtual teams," Settle says.

Just what is a virtual team? The key feature is that, unlike a traditional sales team or staff, the virtual team doesn't share physical space, and members rarely get together in the same place for meetings. This decidedly '90s way of doing business is spreading like wildfire. "In many instances, a virtual team is simply the best way to get a job done," says Jeffrey Stamps, co-author of Virtual Teams (John Wiley & Sons) and co-founder of The Networking Institute, a West Newton, Massachusetts-based consulting firm that assists businesses in setting up effective virtual teams.

A number of trends are fueling the popularity of virtual teams:

  • "Companies want to get close to their customers, so they decentralize," says Stamps. Push staffers out of the main office, though, and it's that much harder to pull them together for team meetings. It's also more expensive, in terms of commuting times and reimbursement for travel.
  • Globalization is still experiencing widespread interest, and even small companies often have an employee or two in Singapore, London or even more remote places. Involving them via virtual teams is the only cost-effective option.
  • "People are increasingly unwilling to move," says Stamps. So if you want the talents of a top marketing guru who is comfortably settled in Elk, California, or Taos, New Mexico, he or she may well nix any offers to relocate--but may happily join a virtual team.
  • The explosive growth of new technologies, such as the Internet, and dramatically improved global telecommunications are making it possible to bring people together. "Technology now allows people to work productively and in collaboration from almost anywhere in the world," says Stamps.

Robert McGarvey writes on business, psychology and management topics for several national publications. To reach him online with your questions or ideas, e-mail rjmcgarvey@aol.com.

Teaming Up

Don't rush out to form a virtual team in your business just yet, however. "While they can work superbly, some projects aren't suitable for a virtual team," warns Stamps.

"While most tasks related to knowledge work can be handled by a virtual team, you obviously cannot do your manufacturing with [one]," says Dick Axelrod, a Wilmette, Illinois, management consultant. Put more broadly, when the job involves ideas and planning, a virtual team may be perfect. Conversely, when the project is hands-on, you'll probably need to stick with traditional on-site teams. The same goes for projects that involve high sensitivity to nuances that are easy to miss when face-to-face contact is lacking.

Picking the right project doesn't mean success is guaranteed, however. Step one in creating virtual team success is to put into place the tools for ongoing interaction. A virtual team may be scattered across the globe, but that doesn't mean its members aren't in touch.

How do you keep team members in the loop? Although videoconferencing equipment and exotic software for virtual collaboration are available, most companies with virtual teams stick with lower-cost technologies. "The two primary tools are the telephone and e-mail," says Stamps, who has studied the operating styles of hundreds of virtual teams. For instance, Settle's teams make monthly conference calls and weekly calls at critical times; they also maintain more frequent contact via e-mail, which flows out regularly to all team members.

Ditto for Katy Boos, co-founder of Big Sky Communications Inc., a high-tech communications firm based in Silicon Valley. Big Sky's team members live not just in California but in Utah, Connecticut, Delaware and other locations in the United States. But, says Boos, that's no hindrance to serving clients like software giants Adobe and Netscape. "Between teleconferencing and e-mail, it's now very possible to keep a team current on the work that needs doing and the new issues that are emerging," she says.

Step two may sound contradictory: Kick off a virtual team by physically bringing the members together. "It's easier and better to talk on the phone and exchange e-mail when you can associate names with faces," says Axelrod.

Once it's afloat, a virtual team will run more smoothly with occasional in-person meetings. "Our teams get together physically at least once a year, perhaps once quarterly for some of our customers," says Settle. "It's a big help in building relationships."

Step three is to clarify why this team exists. "A virtual team is doomed if it doesn't have a clear purpose," says Stamps. "Without one, the team is a nonstarter from the beginning."

A traditional, face-to-face team may lack a well-defined purpose but still produce results simply by virtue of members coming together and bouncing ideas off each other. If nothing else, cohesiveness is apt to strengthen the group. But virtual teams need to work at setting agendas and communicating. "In face-to-face situations, some of this can be fudged," says Stamps. "But it can't with a virtual team."

Add more efficiency to a virtual team by clearly defining the roles of each participant and how the work will get done--that is, who's in charge of transmitting what to whom. Ensuring that everyone knows his or her particular task goes a long way toward creating a virtual team that gets results.

A related concern: Make sure all your team members are self-motivated and don't need much supervision. You won't be able to hold team members' hands from hundreds of miles away. Some workers just aren't suited to operating with minimal face-to-face contact, so assemble your virtual team with great caution.

Step four may be the most difficult: Recognize that managing a virtual team means assuming a different leadership role. "You cannot manage a virtual team the way you manage a traditional team," says Stamps. What's the difference? Between the high levels of self-reliance of team members and the clear definition of roles, virtual teams don't prosper under controlling leadership.

"More typically, a virtual team will have multiple leaders that emerge as the need arises," says Stamps. When money issues dominate the discussion, a financial officer may assume control. When technology is paramount, techies will be in charge of the discussions, and so on. Adds Stamps, "With virtual teams, the traditional concept of an all-powerful leader has to be forgotten."

But that's not to say your role is unimportant: "A virtual team may have multiple leaders, but [there should be] one decision maker," says Stamps. In fact, with a virtual team, the boss's job may very well get harder. Communication and planning are crucial. "The good virtual team manager has a handle on the team's purpose and is able to inspire workers to pursue it," says Stamps. "That's the challenge for a virtual team leader."

Meet that challenge, and you'll soon discover your team is doing not virtual or insubstantial work, but some of the best work you've ever seen. "Virtual teams can get the job done," promises Stamps. "That's the bottom-line reason for their success."

Contact Sources

The Axelrod Group, (847) 251-7361, http://www.tmn.com/axelrodgroup

Big Sky Communications Inc., 5380 Hammerton Ct., San Jose, CA 95118, info@bigskypr.com

Keystone Marketing Specialists Inc., fax: (702) 450-7007, karenkey@aol.com

The Networking Institute, e-mail: jstamps@netage.com, http://www.netage.com