The Ethernet Connection: Motivating Virtual Teams


Melissa Van Dyke, President: Incentive Research Foundation

Liz wakes up very early in the morning, walks down the hall to her home office, reviews her e-mail over coffee, checks in with her team via instant messaging and accesses her employer’s online management systems to ensure her group’s operational and financial resources are on track.  Although Liz’s routine is most likely the pinnacle of a “virtual” work environment, today’s reality is that the majority of her peers share at least some of the virtual elements of her day-to-day experience.

This is a very different scenario from 25 years ago when the average customer service manager commuted to an office building, greeted the team, gave them a morning pep talk and then sent them on their way to happily work side-by-side as they greeted customers in person or, at the very least, by phone. The manager then retreated to a small office where he/she sat at a large wooden desk and spent a good part of the day manually flipping through status reports and signing checks to ensure his or her employees got paid.

Interestingly, as a manager of people, Liz’s world is heavily comprised of a set of carefully orchestrated technological interactions — from the money she uses, to the customers she greets, to the teams she manages. Yet with technological complexities constantly on the rise and online relationship management tools struggling to keep up, Liz still faces one problem common to all managers past and present: how to motivate her team (located in three different cities across the world) to provide outstanding customer care in spite of their physical distance from the corporate infrastructure.

Luckily, Liz is ever-vigilant against knowledge complacency. She has discovered and uses several tools that may be totally unknown to many of her managerial peers. These tools are the result of research and analysis by respected human resource authorities and include:

Incentive Research Foundation Low Virtual Distance: First, based on the research she has read from Dr. Karen Sobel Lojeski,[i] Liz knows that distance is much more than the blocks and oceans that separate her team. In fact, Lojeski’s studies show that while physical distance can influence virtual distance, it is not totally responsible for creating it. Operational distance (the ability to communicate face- to-face and use virtual communication tools, etc.) and Affinity distance (cultural, relationship and social distance) often have a greater impact on team success than physical distance alone. Liz knows that ensuring her team functions in a “low virtual distance” environment means that her effectiveness as a leader grows by 30 percent, her team’s satisfaction jumps by 80 percent and her team’s project success rates (including customer satisfaction) increase by 50 percent over high virtual distance environments. Liz got a jump start on creating a low virtual distance environment by ensuring she budgeted for at least one face-to-face meeting a year, created small teams, ensured every employee had exceptional technological understanding of virtual networking tools and laid out a clear, common vision for the team – a vision for which she consistently seeks her team’s input.

Performance Improvement by Incentives Model Team Incentives: Second, as part of creating a common, shared purpose for her team, Liz implemented a very succinct incentive plan using a common incentive platform that all employees can access regardless of their location. The platform allows all employees to receive instant feedback on where they and their team rank and to learn about the most recent customer service initiatives. Based on work done by the Incentive Research Foundation, she made sure that the program was at least a year long, that it set challenging, but achievable, quota-based goals and that is was in harmony with broader organizational goals. She followed the eight basic steps laid out in the Performance Improvement by Incentives Model and, similar to what was found in the research, helped her team achieve a 44 percent increase in performance.[ii]

Games: Last but not least, and much to the chagrin of some of her cohorts, Liz is an avid advocate of bringing the experience of the games that all of us enjoyed as children into the modern workplace. She is astutely aware that, regardless of the far-flung locales of her team, there is a common, fundamental human enjoyment of games. The primary reason is that our brains seek the mental hook, clear goals, immediate feedback and instant rewards that a good game offers. According to the National Training Laboratories, learners who engage with games as part of their educational process retain 75 percent of the knowledge they acquire.[i] This is why her team’s incentive system maintains a game-like point scoreboard, why her online training module is set up as a vignette-based game and why her team’s annual face-to-face meeting involves several games that benefit the hosting community.

Like all managers, Liz faces a myriad of challenges when trying to motivate her team to higher levels of customer satisfaction. The velocity of these challenges only increases with the entrance of changing technologies, cultures and locations. By using a mixture of virtual distance, team incentives and gaming techniques, Liz stands a greater chance of creating a highly engaging environment for her employees – and ultimately her customers.

[i]When Distance Matters.  Karen Sobel Lojeski, Ph.D.
[ii]Incentives, Motivation and Workplace Performance: Research and Best Practices
[iii]Companies use team-based business games to increase productivity