In the traditional workplace it's easy for the boss to dole out praise and criticism, and ensure that work remains on track.

But what about the virtual workplace, where team members are isolated in offices literally around the world? Are they loyal, productive, engaged employees who are fully supported by company leadership?

Darleen DeRosa believes companies still have plenty to learn. The Philadelphia-based senior organizational consultant with Right Management Consultants has just finished an intriguing study of global virtual teams.

While organizations have invested heavily in virtual teams as well as expensive support technology, many miss the big picture, DeRosa says.

Darleen DeRosa

"It's amazing how many teams aren't leveraging that technology and how many companies don't pay attention to supporting virtual teamwork to make sure the team is really productive."

For DeRosa, who has a PhD in organizational psychology, understanding virtual teams is a labour of love. She spent four years in graduate school - both at the masters and PhD level - studying the subject. She continues her research at Right Management and the results of her survey are just now becoming public.

When DeRosa surveyed 10 disparate, major global organizations, two-thirds of them said enhancing the performance of virtual teams was "important, or very important" to their business.

In total, 213 individuals representing 21 virtual teams were surveyed and/or interviewed.

The findings were telling. Sixty-five per cent of team members said they'd never had an effective team-building session; 36 per cent had never met their team members face to face; and teams that had been together six to 12 months scored significantly higher in performance than those operating one to three years.

Working in isolation in a virtual workplace can mean employees miss out on the face-to-face contact and team spirit found in a group environment.

"One of the critical findings here is that productivity drops over time," DeRosa says.

While an out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality might factor into a company's lack of attention to virtual teams, research suggests they should pay closer attention.

A recent study by the Gartner Group, a U.S-based research company specializing in the global information technology industry, estimates that by 2008, 41 million corporate employees worldwide will work virtually at least one day per week. All these workers won't be on bona fide virtual teams, DeRosa concedes, but it illustrates how more employees are working on their own.

What are the challenges for virtual teams? DeRosa's research identified seven key areas that require consideration:

* Companies must compensate for the lack of human contact, and find appropriate ways to support team spirit, trust and productivity.

* Leaders must be especially sensitive to interpersonal, communication and cultural factors.

* No trust, no team. Trust is a top factor in determining virtual team success. But interpersonal trust, compared to task-level trust (a faith that team members will do their job) is more difficult to achieve in a virtual environment.

* Team building pays off. Virtual teams that invest time in team building perform better than those that don't.

* Team performance tends to drop off after one year. Attention must be paid to interpersonal, communication and cultural factors to prevent a "peak-and-decline" syndrome.

* Technology makes virtual teaming possible, but isn't a perfect substitute for human interaction. Teams must be careful to use the appropriate technology for various tasks.

* While meeting in person requires time and expense, virtual teams that meet once or twice a year perform better overall than those that don't meet.

Of the findings, survey participants ranked leadership as the key factor in a virtual team's success.

"I would say they have to have stronger influencing skills, because influencing from a distance is much different than doing it face to face," DeRosa says.

"I think companies have to spend time thinking about the criteria of successful leaders. Is this person able to motivate and be sensitive to cultural nuances? That's different than hiring someone to be a taskmaster who drives work."

Interestingly, the report suggests that rotating team leaders is one possible solution to the stagnation that affects teams the longer they're together.

The idea is that rotating leaders creates more accountability and increases team engagement, an important element for people who only meet virtually.

Dianne Bond, Right's vice-president of business development, says the report reflects the challenges she has encountered as a virtual team member and as a virtual leader.

Eighteen months ago, Calgary-based Bond was part of a 15-member worldwide team commissioned to prepare a report for the company president. The group met for the first time at a conference and then dispersed across the globe for one year.

"I was in Calgary, we had a person in Australia, another in Japan, people on both coasts of the United States," Bond says.

"The report says people need to meet face to face, and I believe that getting together at the start was invaluable."

The initial meeting helped create a bond between members, a sense of trust and an understanding of each other's individual makeup.

For example, a female Japanese team member was extremely polite and quiet. Bond says if they hadn't met in person, it would have been easy to overlook the woman in conference calls because she deferred to others. Or, worse for team dynamics, she could have been perceived as a non-performer, someone not pulling her weight.

Bond adds that while traditional workplaces allow employees to gauge each other's body language, facial expressions and other subtleties, her global team relied primarily on hearing.

"When you are face to face in a group meeting, and one person is sitting quietly with their arms folded, you can ask them what they think," she says. "And they come out with some absolutely brilliant idea. How do you do that with a conference call? In our case, we had to set group protocols."

While Bond's team gelled, it's not always the case.

DeRosa says companies put people on teams who have never worked virtually, and don't necessarily have the communication skills or the desire to work with technology. "You need to match people to the team so they are driven enough to work virtually. Companies have to ask, is the person independent and accountable enough to work on the team?" Beyond personal discipline, successful teams have members who inspire each other, hold each other accountable for completing work, are sensitive in how they communicate and ensure that they address minor conflicts as they arise.

To help people celebrate successes, companies have created web pages to acknowledge workers' efforts. Some organizations have "virtual water coolers," or chatrooms where they routinely go online and interact. Leaders, meanwhile, have to recognize successes and be diligent in taking the extra time required to communicate appropriate messages effectively.

While technology has made virtual teams possible, DeRosa says companies are not optimizing its potential.

She recently spoke with a leading U.S. company that invested millions of dollars in video conferencing technology. Yet no one used it, either because they weren't trained or were resisting it.

<"There's research that shows video conferencing can compensate for the lack of face-to-face time, and we thought video conferencing would be huge with virtual teams. Yet a key finding for me is that very few of them use it."

All of which brings us back to the big picture. Companies make great efforts around team building with traditional teams, but DeRosa's research shows they don't think enough about virtual groups and their challenges. "They need to realize that making an investment in the team will increase productivity. For some reason, companies aren't thinking about it."

Web Watch: www.right.com (Mike Dempster can be reached at miked@businessedge.ca)