A two-year study of 35 cross-functional business teams (280 people) in "a high-technology service organization in the travel industry" revealed that empowered virtual teams—those given greater control over their daily work—perform better than less empowered ones. All the teams conducted "all of their day-to-day work…using telephones and voice mail, e-mail, and instant messaging." Performance was rated using the company's standard performance measures on process improvement and customer satisfaction.
Empowering teams is proven to make them more effective in teams that meet face-to-face, but this is the first major study to look at empowerment's effect on virtual team success. There was a catch: Teams that met face-to-face more often didn't need as much empowerment to succeed at process improvement. But for pleasing customers, empowerment was equally important regardless of how "virtual" the teams were.
That "catch" doesn't mean occasional face-to-face meetings hurt performance (which would run counter to other research findings). It just means that if a team meets face-to-face on a regular basis, the greater trust, familiarity, and personal understanding it can gain makes empowerment less important as a management tool for generating team success. Regardless, the researchers state flatly that "for managers to enhance virtual team process improvement and customer satisfaction, they should increase team empowerment." To do so, they wrote:
Source: Kirkman, B., et al. (04), "The Impact of Team Empowerment on Virtual Team Performance: The Moderating Role of Face-to-Face Interaction," Academy of Management Journal 47(2):175.