In a recent survey of 1,700 knowledge workers, 79% of respondents indicated that they always or frequently work in dispersed virtual teams. The trend is echoed in law firms of all sizes, as business operations are reconfigured for greater efficiency and individuals seek increased flexibility in work arrangements.
Author and speaker Keith Ferrazzi published practical tips to set virtual teams up for success in the December 2014 issue of Harvard Business Review. Based on my experience working with groups in multiple law offices and time zones, his advice rings true.
Ferrazzi says that virtual teams should focus on getting four elements right: the right team, the right leadership (the action, not the title), the right communication touchpoints and the right technology. Three of his suggestions seemed especially relevant to me in my work with lawyers.
Teams working on legal projects often include firm members in multiple offices, with multiple schedules. They include:
- Specialists, such as employees or e-discovery consultants responsible for a small, specific slice of the project
- A core group of strategists – often the lawyers
- Functional experts, such as paralegals whose work involves day-to-day responsibilities
Ferrazzi refers to these as “core, operational and outer” roles.
I am often surprised at the number of team leaders who forget this step. Identifying who belongs in which role and defining expectations at the outset is crucial if you want to avoid confusion later on in the project. If you’ve ever wondered why one member of your team assumed that another was responsible for completing a missed task, you’ll know what I mean.
Use technology well
Many of us get stuck on the idea that project technology has to be right and that it has to be robust before any virtual teamwork can start. Poor technology does cause frustration, delays and miscommunication. But it’s no excuse not to find creative solutions or train people to learn new skills.
One of the good suggestions in the article – and one that could easily work for a legal team – is to set up a secure online chat room for members to log questions, answers and decisions. This wrangles group discussions and quick answers in one place. Even better if it’s searchable.
“Agree on how quickly team members should respond to queries and requests from one another, and outline follow-up steps if someone is slow to act”
This guideline could be determined according to roles, but it would increase trust in any team, virtual or not.