Harness the Virtual Team’s Full Potential

We talk a lot about how to successfully work virtually and have remote project teams. There are lots of blog posts and articles touting the benefit of working remotely. We have more online tools than ever that can help us get the job done but simply having cool, online chat rooms and daily remote stand-ups doesn’t guarantee your remote team will be more productive or successful. In an article by Martin Hoegl and Miriam Muethel, they discovered that the main key to a successful virtual project team is how the team enables shared leadership. This paper hit the nail on the head that virtual teams are their own beast and need to stop being compared to co-located teams, especially when it comes to team leaders and leadership within the team.

Hoegl and Muethel found that virtual teams with team leaders who “proactively shared decision making authority” and “team members who…demonstrated high levels of shared leadership” generate better work by reducing product development time and decrease the number of defects and rework. However, they found that this is not common practice and that many companies end up pulling back their number of virtual teams due to the lack of leadership and productivity of the team since “team leaders tend to underestimate their teams’ willingness to share leadership…hinder[ing] leadership effectiveness in virtual teams” so that the benefit of virtual teams are not achieved.

Two shifts have to occur to create a well-oiled virtual team:

  • First, the team leader has to re-think their fundamental understanding of leadership. They can do this by shaping a “broader role profile for their team members, including shared leadership responsibility” instead of being the sole leader “hero”.
  • Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how much the team leader promotes shared leadership and autonomy for the team if the team members do not rise up to take it. Virtual team members need to become more self-reliant. It was found that virtual teams made up of seasoned experts in their field fare far better since those members are used to taking on responsibility and understand how to lead their own work.

While reading this paper, I couldn’t help but wonder about the changing workforce in general. We have more Millennials entering the workforce while Baby Boomers are leaving it. Millennials, and the generation after having the expectation to work from wherever, whenever as long as we get the work done. Millennials are known to be more collaborative in general.

When working on group projects in college, the group naturally takes over what sections they are strongly suited for instead of one person taking charge and handing out parts. Could this trend of shared leadership turn into a natural outcome of the next generation entering the workforce? Is virtual working also a natural offshoot?

I highly suggest this paper. It can be found online at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/pmj.21564/full

Hoegl, M., & Muethel, M. (2016). Enabling Shared Leadership in Virtual Project Teams: A Practitioners’ Guide. Project Management Journal, 7-12.


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