Today many of us have to work in virtual teams - that is
teams who are not in the same location, who work more
apart than together and who frequently are of different
nationalities and in different time zones. They have to
use technology – some of the time at least - in order to
communicate and work towards their common goal.
Successful virtual teams depend more on the people and
the thought that goes into setting them up, than they do
on the technology used. As with many things in business,
the more thought that goes into them up front, the
better the chances for success.
- Make sure that there is a senior champion or
sponsor(s) for the team – someone to help when things
get stuck. In one of our projects (3 spread across the
Americas, 3 spread across the UK, one in the Middle East
and one in Australasia) we had a steering committee led
by two sponsors who were quite senior in the
organisation. They were chosen by the team as people who
could help us to achieve our aims and in particular
could support us to get discussions about behaviour
change into Senior Management circles.
- When considering who will be members of the team,
those chosen must want to be included and be motivated
to work on the team (that is to have a personal
commitment – not a role that means they ‘should' be a
representative). They should be self starters and it is
best if they are able and happy to lead – as experience
shows that the leadership of the group works well when
it is shared. The way the sharing of leadership will be
done is best planned in advance. They must be
pro-active, yet happy to be interdependent, supportive
- Start with a kick-off meeting. For best results, it
should be face-to-face as this is the speediest way to
find out about each other and build trust and rapport.
In that meeting the ground rules (the way the team
agrees to work together) and team charter must be set
up. In this kick-off meeting, you need to ensure that
trust is built between the members, that team members
identify with the team (you might consider the benefits
of team branding), that they have empathy for one
another and have some shared values, all of which will
help you to achieve the team’s purpose.
- Setting up a virtual team needs to be well thought
through. There must be a compelling and clear purpose
for the team and for the work it is to do. This purpose
needs to be agreed with sponsors and stakeholders and
also have buy in from the team members. This is the glue
that holds the team together. It is perhaps easier to
have this when working on a project team, but even a
team like a European Sales Team most likely has some
joint or common targets and in helping one another will
do better than if they were on their own.
- Make sure that you understand the stakeholders’
expectations. For this you may well need to get your
sponsors involved. What will make the work you do
together successful in their eyes? How will you know you
have succeeded and the project is finished?
- Agree objectives that everyone can contribute to.
You may know WHAT the project is about (rolling out new
technology – for example a new IT system), but HOW to do
it must be open for the team to decide on.
- Team roles need to be agreed and defined for
everyone. This is more than just who is to tackle what
part of the task you have together, but also things like
who is leading each meeting, who is watching the
process, who is collecting and collating the
reports/reading that goes out 24 hours before the
meeting, who is noting actions (and perhaps for which
part of the meeting) and providing a write up of the
meeting, who is following up before and/or after with
those who can’t make the meeting.
- Team behaviours – the way the team agrees to work
together - need to be agreed (part of the team charter).
This will include things like how people check in for
meetings, what a person does when he/she can’t make a
meeting (whose responsibility is it to report in on this
person’s behalf and to bring them up to date
afterwards?), how you rotate meetings both in venue (for
face-to-face) and in time if you are working across
time-zones, how you keep the team up to date with
It seems that the virtual teams that work best, are those
which meet face-to-face occasionally. What is the right
frequency of face-to-face meetings to keep people
engaged and trust levels high? What is the right ratio
for virtual to face-to-face?
Meetings need to be well thought through beforehand and
tightly run. Start with a social check-in, especially
when in telephone conferences when people can’t see one
another. Check at intervals during the meeting to
reflect on what is working and what isn’t working, then
adjust the way you are doing things accordingly –
including how well the technology is working for
everyone – especially those sitting on their own
somewhere when it is either very early in the morning,
or very late at night.
Teams should not be too big. You could have a core team
and then call in others as needed. If several people are
in one room and others are calling in singly, we notice
that the larger groups who sit together tend to dominate
or to have a meeting within a meeting, so this needs
Be considerate of time zone differences, cultural
differences and especially of those for whom English is
a second (or third) language. People who are speaking in
another language may feel even more uncomfortable when
they can’t see those they are speaking to. Give them
time to think and to speak. Check that they are
following and that things are clear for them, ask if
they have questions or concerns. When you can’t see
people, you don’t know if they are confused unless you
Share information 24 hours before the meeting so that
everyone is up to speed and time needn’t be wasted,
especially if the meeting is across time-zones and by
telephone only. We find that sharing information before
the meeting and addressing only exceptions and areas
where people needed help or where we wanted to celebrate
a success, kept the meetings moving and kept the sense
of purpose strong.
Understand conflict when it occurs and make sure it is
immediately addressed (relationship conflict, task
conflict and process conflict – identify which it is and
then address it appropriately). It escalates much more
quickly in a virtual setting than in a face-to-face
situation because people don't check their internal
stories as easily as they might if it were face-to-face.
From our experience, the person in the leadership role
has to make sure that everyone is heard and that
everyone is up to speed. With virtual teams, there are
frequently one or two who can’t make a meeting – in the
ground rules you will have agreed whether or not they
can send a substitute – if substitutes aren't
acceptable, the leader needs to catch them up both
before the meeting to see if there are any points to
raise and afterwards to provide feedback and to give a
flavour of what went on. This involves them more than
just receiving an action list, especially if there are
actions behind their name. There is a lot more overt
checking that needs to happen because you can’t see
someone in the office and get a feel for where they are
at – you need to call and do it on the phone… it helps
if you overtly check
as much that you have agreement and/or are understood if
you are only working on the phone (even if using good
video conferencing, it is useful to double check).
As the leadership role in a virtual team is far more work
than in a team that meets face-to-face, we find that
rotating the leader role is useful for the team.
Everyone gets a chance to lead and should do so most
especially when their special area is being addressed.
The handover between leaders can be informal, but needs
to happen to ensure continuity as you go forward.