From his home base in Calgary, Ryan McDonald works with teams scattered across the globe. Mr. McDonald is president of Uncommon Innovation, a consulting firm that helps technology startups and other companies worldwide develop new products and bring them to market.
Uncommon Innovation's four staff form virtual teams with outside consultants. Likewise, most of the firm's clients are based in North America, but they have development teams in countries such as Bolivia, India, Serbia and Ukraine.
Mr. McDonald estimates that at least 70 per cent of his customers work this way. "Five years ago, the number of new teams that would have geographically dispersed members was a relatively small portion of our client base," he says. "Now it's the norm for new software products to have teams all over the world."
To collaborate with far-flung colleagues and clients, Mr. McDonald taps a cloud-based tool called Minigroup. This software, developed by a Calgary company of the same name, lets users manage projects and hold online discussions.
For example, Mr. McDonald might post the website of a product that competes with an offering by one of his clients. "Then we can have a conversation with various parties that would be sitting in different cities and different places, and everybody can contribute their angle and their take on that," he explains.
Many of Mr. McDonald's clients use Minigroup while travelling. "They're able to get the most recent version of the documents that they require or the status of the work and research that we're doing," he says.
Virtual teams may not be a novel idea, but new technologies are helping these groups to work more effectively.
"I think virtual teams are here to stay," says Claire Sookman, principal of Toronto-based consultancy Virtual Team Builders. Ms. Sookman notes that according to Statistics Canada, 1.4-million Canadian employees work from home at least part-time. "We're seeing more companies transition toward a virtual environment, but it's also not an all-or-nothing concept."
Either way, going virtual can deliver financial and other benefits. In a 2011 survey of Canadian and U.S. businesses by Houston–based Chronos Consulting, almost a quarter of respondents said they were deploying virtual teams to save money. Among the other reasons companies gave for using or considering virtual teams: access to global talent.
But when it comes to the virtual working environment, there's plenty of room to improve on existing technology. "Virtual teams function really well when they're allowed to communicate easily," says Andrew Gaudes, an associate professor of business at the University of New Brunswick. "When we start looking into the future, it's going to be about how we can make communication among team members more free and easy so that the interaction is more natural," adds Dr. Gaudes, who has worked with organizations to build virtual teams.
Noting that Skype and other video services are growing in popularity, Dr. Gaudes expects to see touch screens that allow team members in different locations to work on the same document together. He also predicts that organizations will increasingly turn to social media. "We have a greater comfort zone with communicating with people without being in the same room because of sites like Twitter and Facebook," Dr. Gaudes says.
As it turns out, Minigroup originally launched last year as a private social network. But when the company noticed that many business customers with remote employees were using the product, it switched focus.
"Good collaboration isn't just about doing tasks," says cofounder Chris Nieckar. "It's really the conversations and the communication that lead to the task and lead to accomplishing the work that needs to get done."
For teams that work virtually, e-mail may hinder those tasks. Jon Wagner, cofounder of VirtualeTeams, a Brechin, Ont.–based consulting firm, points out that e-mail is unstructured. If a team has several projects in play, setting up a discussion group for each one works better, Mr. Wagner says. "Every time someone makes a comment on an idea, it all gets connected."
Virtual team members must feel comfortable with their technology, but experts also stress the importance of in-person meetings. Dr. Gaudes invokes an old expression: High tech requires high touch. "The more that you rely on technology to collaborate, the more it demands that people have to get together at some point in time," he says.
Just be sure to use travel effectively, Mr. Wagner advises. "Don't go and show presentations and spend your energy and time doing the things you can do virtually," he says. "When you get together, work on things that build trust."
Such face-to-face encounters should be more of a social event than a business meeting, Dr. Gaudes suggests. Along those lines, he's noticed that successful virtual teams socialize through the communication tools that bring them together at work.
"Then you know you've got it right, because now you've got people working and playing using the same technology," Dr. Gaudes says. "That always breeds successful team construction as well as interaction and outcomes."
Rules of virtual engagement
Virtual teamwork is 10 per cent about technology and 90 per cent about people, says Claire Sookman, principal of Toronto-based consulting firm Virtual Team Builders. Ms. Sookman has this advice for leaders of virtual teams.
1. Be encouraging
"In a virtual environment, there's a risk of out of sight, out of mind. As the leader, you need to take the time to let your employees know that their presence is significant to the company."
2. Run effective meetings
"Every three slides or every six minutes, ask a question, conduct a poll or maybe do a short team energizer so that people are continually engaged."
3. Get to know everyone
"In a face-to-face environment, you go out for lunch together, you meet in the hallway, you do the water-cooler bit. In a virtual environment, you have to create those opportunities. … At every meeting, we'll spend a few minutes just checking in [to see]how people are doing."