Years ago, people working together on teams worked in the same office or at least within the same building or corporate campus. In today's workplace, team members may never meet face-to-face or even be in the same country!  In my 20+ years working with clients, I've seen how technology has propelled the explosion of virtual teams in private, public, and nonprofit sectors.

A virtual team is defined as "a group of people working together across time and space, using electronic communication technology."  Team members may be working with each other in very different cultures, time zones, and/or environments.  One of the key benefits of a virtual team is that organizations can select the best talent from anywhere in the world.  Virtual teams also save organizations money by reducing office space requirements, as team members can work from home, client sites, or shared workspaces.

Virtual team life is not problem-free, and in order to be as effective as possible, they have to overcome challenges, such as:

  • Time zone differences: this alone can make it difficult to communicate in real time. 
  • Minimal nonverbal communication: virtual team communications are often limited by the lack of nonverbal visual cues, which are integral in developing trust and clear messaging. 
  • Difficulty in measuring engagement: it can be difficult to proactively detect any lack of engagement in virtual team members, which can lead to lower productivity and morale.

Based on our research and experience with clients, here are 8 tips for anyone leading and/or participating on a virtual team:

  1. Educate yourself about normal group development stages.  A virtual team goes through the same stages as co-located teams.  We have been using The Drexler/Sibbet Team Performance Model to help teams determine what stage a team is in, what challenges might arise in each stage, and how to lead the team forward toward high performance. One you understand group development stages, you can leverage that knowledge and be a more effective team leader or team member.
  2. Conduct a face-to-face kick off meeting.  If possible, schedule a face-to-face meeting when the team first comes together. This helps to build trust among team members and establishes important social bonds.  If "in person" meetings are not possible, conduct a videoconference with the team.
  3. Spotlight a team member. Another way to develop informal social bonds is to spotlight a member each week in a video or print interview about their professional background, family, hobbies, and other information that they are comfortable sharing with the team. We've worked with teams that created online team bios so that everyone knew their skill set, educational background, special interests, hobbies, etc.
  4. Create team agreements.  It is helpful for teams to establish norms upfront. For example, discussing and agreeing on how you will schedule meetings across time zones, or defining team member roles and responsibilities, are important to manage expectations about such issues.
  5. Establish communication guidelines. Clarifying which medium to use for regular communication (i.e., email, chat, intranet, phone, videoconference), response time requirements, and criteria for prioritizing issues, goes a long way towards effective team communication.
  6. Establish ground rules for virtual meetings. Ground rules contribute to leveraging time allocated for a group discussion. Some examples include, "turn off cell phones," "one person contributes at a time," and "don't use the mute button."
  7. Team leader visits. If possible, the team leader should travel to remote office locations, as this can increase engagement and trust with team members who may never get to visit their organization's headquarters or meet their team leader face-to-face.
  8. Acknowledge and respect cultural diversity.  Recognizing and educating team members about cultural nuances between geographical areas where team members live or work can help minimize potential culture clashes and miscommunication.

There are many books written on the topic of virtual teams and what makes them successful. I recommend Virtual Team Success: A Practical Guide for Working and Leading from a Distance by Darleen DeRosa and Richard Lepsinger. 

For more information about teams, check out my Psychology Today (January 23, 2010) Smart@Work blog, "Identity Crisis: Are we a TEAM or a WORKING GROUP?"

What has worked well with virtual teams in your organization?

About the Author

Jennell Evans

Jennell Evans is President and CEO of Strategic Interactions, Inc., a workplace performance improvement firm based in Fairfax, VA.

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