GVTs — Necessary Evil or Strategic Tool?

Global virtual teams are rarely claimed as a strength. That’s a mistake.

Global virtual teams are a common reality for companies with global operations and partnerships. In spite of their presence as a tool for global commerce, few organizations claim GVTs as a core strength or competitive advantage. In fact, many companies approach GVTs as a necessary evil for conducting global business and/or as a strategy to reduce travel expenses. However, there are specific practices that can shift GVTs from being a necessary evil to a strategic tool for an organization.

Over the past five years, I have helped to launch, support and evaluate 34 successful, project-based GVTs whose memberships span 15 countries. The lessons I learned from them demonstrate that despite inherent complexities, the strategic benefits associated with GVTs are available to any organization. Realizing the benefits, however, requires a structured and intentional approach to both team launch and ongoing support.

The most critical step to building and sustaining effective GVTs is related to how the teams build and sustain team relationships. Teams that prioritize relationships throughout the project lifecycle demonstrate the highest performance and member engagement. Further, these teams exhibit specific practices that enable them to develop and sustain healthy relationships. The three key practices identified are: building and sustaining trust, establishing role-based relationships, and embracing and navigating conflict.

The presence of trust can be a significant mitigating factor against the many complexities facing a GVT. Conversely, the absence of trust could render an otherwise high-potential team completely dysfunctional. Although trust can be multidimensional, the most important dimension is a team’s ability to create a psychologically safe environment where members feel comfortable taking risks and displaying vulnerability.

There are three reasons why safety is especially important in GVTs. First, English is likely a second language for many team members. Therefore, there may be a natural hesitancy to actively engage in a dialogue outside their native language. Second, teams may be multidisciplinary, and members are asked to engage with topics outside their typical expertise, such as financial forecasts or supply chain optimization. Third, there is geographic, cultural and temporal distance inherent in most GVTs. The virtual aspect induces a reticence that psychological safety can mitigate. Establishing trust creates a solid foundation upon which to establish role-based relationships.

Establishing clear roles and corresponding accountabilities allows members to set clear performance expectations. Then, as discrepancies in performance or expectations occur, members can refer to their explicit commitments for their respective roles. This practice also allows members to distinguish their personal relationships from role-based relationships, which sets the stage for the third practice: embracing and navigating conflict.

Working in a GVT environment presents many opportunities for conflict. The most effective teams embrace the conflict and remain engaged as they find ways to productively resolve them. These teams do not allow the conflict to become personal. Instead, they frame it within the context of their shared goals and commitments. Conversely, teams that base their relationships solely on personal dimensions tend to avoid conflict, even if that results in a deterioration in performance. One team member I worked with said, “I really love my team; we never argued. However, I’m not sure that we challenged each other enough. I now wonder if we did our best work, and if I learned as much as I could have.”

Although GVTs have many inherent complexities, they can also be a strategic tool for organizations. The lessons learned from the aforementioned 34 teams indicate there are clear factors that learning practitioners can tend to in order to support GVT performance.

As you evaluate the performance of existing GVTs and/or prepare to launch new ones, consider what structures, practices and tools will help the team establish a psychologically safe environment, clearly defined roles, and ways to proactively engage in and navigate through the conflict that is inevitable in high performing teams.

With an intentional approach to launching and sustaining GVTs, organizations have opportunities to shift their mindset away from necessary evil, and view GVTs as a competitive advantage.

Darin Rowell is CEO of BlueRock. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

All contributors to Perspectives are current students or alumni of the PennCLO Program, the University of Pennsylvania’s doctoral program for senior-level talent and learning executives.