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Managing a Virtual Team

Last Updated May 2, 2007 7:23 PM EDT

In today's globally connected world, you may never physically meet important members of your work or project team. While electronic communication can't replicate the chemistry of teams working together in the same place, by making good use of technology and thoughtful communication practices, you can still interact effectively with team members who are located at great distances.

What You Need to KnowHow can I get a virtual team to bond?

No matter the span of time and space between you and your far-flung team members, you need to coordinate activities to build identity and cohesion among your entire team. You could start with an extensive introductory briefing session run via videoconference or an in-person or virtual training program. Your objective should be to underscore a common sense of mission, building trust, and encouraging information sharing and willful collaboration. Have everyone submit biographical information about themselves. Consider creating a team Web site or electronic bulletin board where team members can post pictures of themselves enjoying their favorite pastimes. This creates a more personal, humanizing dimension to people who are otherwise perceived as distant and unconnected.

What's the best way to build rapport between team members who work in different time zones?

Obviously it's much easier to build trust and rapport when you can actually see someone and communicate with them spontaneously. (But remember that it's also easy to take people for granted when you're aware that they are right down the hall.) The key to very long-distance relationships is similar to that for all relationships: productive, honest information exchanges.

When geography and time zones prohibit spontaneous and casual interactions, you need to be mindful of the need to schedule and honor your commitment to regular communication. That could be by team teleconferences, posting updates to a team project Web site, and other technology-enabled means. The key is to keep every team member "in the loop" with consistent, reliable information exchanges—where team members can contribute information, not just access dispatches from team leadership.

Consider having one videoconference with those members of your team who live in compatible time zones and a second with those who couldn't join you at the first conference. Encourage the others to do the same, passing real-time communication around the team like the baton in a relay race. In this way even though you can't meet everyone at the same time, you can still encourage each member to interact with others in real time.

I'm feeling isolated: is there a way to create a sense of esprit de corps in a virtual team?

Building and maintaining a strong and positive esprit de corps in your group depends on forging and reinforcing a positive common bond. Make sure you don't focus so much on the virtual team issues that you forget good, basic leadership principles: Rallying around a common purpose, selecting team members wisely, effectively coordinating team member efforts, celebrating your successes, and the like. To help you do that with a widely dispersed group, try using some of the myriad available virtual group technologies. Each has different attributes, so you may want to try a few before finding one that meets your needs. The technologies create a repository for information, advice, guidance, and team member "war stories" that bring a human element to the interaction between everyone on the team. They also help to create a sense of team identity, because you have to be a member to have access to these materials. If you go to your favorite online search engine and put in the keywords: "virtual teams," "virtual groups," or "e-groups," you'll find lots of information about the many available technologies.

What to DoMake Your Virtual Team an Effective Team

An effective virtual team has the same qualities as an effective team working in close proximity. Effective virtual team members:

  • Collaborate. Team members share information, knowledge, ideas, views (including those of dissent), and experiences in order for the team to progress and pull together as a unit.
  • Trust each other. Each member needs to know that the others will honor their commitments and act in the best interest of the team.
  • Communicate. Each member agrees to respect the team's priorities and communicates their work progress regularly.
  • Build and maintain relationships. In the absence of actual face-to-face meetings, each team member does his or her part to develop strong, trusting relationships with other team members by engaging in excellent communication practices.
  • Agree on work rules and processes. All team members work together to establish and observe basic guidelines, written down or not, that govern how they operate as a team. Disagreements and differences of opinion are honored, given a fair hearing, and resolved by a defined process.
Build a Bond with All Team Members

When creating a bond among team members across time and space, look for similarities of values, interests, expertise, or experience so you have multiple avenues that can lead to deeper relationships. Share your expectations with all team members and reach agreement on the terms of your working relationship. Decide how you want the team to be perceived, what values you want to be known for, and what aspirations you have collectively. This may seem overindulgent when there's work to be done, but it's time well spent. Once you've established a basis on which to build rapport, you can move on to the more concrete work assigned to the team.

Assign Appropriate Roles

As a group, decide who plays which part in helping the team meet its objectives. Ask team members about their strengths, and the role they would like to take in the team. Outline the resources and support you need in order for the team to meet its charge effectively. This exercise demands that all members share their individual talents, capabilities, aspirations, strengths, and competence gaps. The required candor and disclosure in this procedure will help the team to assess its relative strengths and help team members learn more about the other members of the team.

Agree on Tasks and Timeframes

Be clear about your expectations for reaching objectives. Decide collectively how the team will deal with failures to meet its objectives. You may need to call emergency meetings to create contingency plans, set new timeframes, or realign the team's objectives.

Agree on Regular Reviews

It is a good idea to arrange reviews as often as your team needs them so that everyone can keep in touch effectively. Reviews also act as an early-warning system if something is beginning to go wrong. Gain commitment and encourage candor from each team member for these very important sessions.

Plan for Conflict

Many people are fearful of conflict and tend to ignore the possibility until it actually emerges. Conflict isn't always a negative experience; handled well, it can be very creative and spur innovation that the team might otherwise not have achieved.

Celebrate Achievements

It's all too easy for dispersed teams to forget to celebrate their successes, but it's important to recognize the attainment of goals. It may be even more important for a team member far removed from his or her colleagues to make a point of enjoying the team's collective success. You can do this by organizing a videoconference and agreeing to hold a virtual party. Although this may feel a little contrived, it nonetheless allows a form of togetherness and mutual appreciation. It also invites humor as you review what went well and what didn't…a great way of letting things go and getting them into perspective. And never underestimate the power of a handwritten congratulatory note and a symbolic gift. Whenever you help a distant colleague feel connected, you build team morale.

Reflect On Your Role

Take time to reflect on what part you took in the team and what you learned about yourself from doing so. Regularly invite the input of your team members, wherever they are, to offer their input into the team processes. This is always good team protocol; it is especially potent for team members with bonds stretching around the globe.

Put Technology to Work for the Team

Electronic communication systems can aid the functioning of virtual teams. Most people are familiar with tele- and videoconferencing as means of bringing remote groups together, along with cell phones, fax, and e-mail. Other technologies that can help when team members are geographically dispersed include:

  • group e-mail: the ability to send e-mail to one or every member of the team greatly enhances the team's ability to communicate.
  • virtual conferencing: this technology enables members of the team to sit at their respective computers and watch the meeting host illustrate his or her message on the screen. Some web conferencing blends an internet connection for on-screen visuals with audio via telephone. Regardless of the configuration, the technology which has been evolving for several years is easy to implement and use.
  • message boards: message or bulletin boards enable group members to go to a central place to communicate with each other and access information.
  • document storage/sharing: there are a number of online document storage providers that enable team members to store, edit, and access common documents. This way there's no need to create multiple versions of the same document; team members can simply work on the sections they need.
What to AvoidYou Don't Build Supportive Relationships

Even though you are focused on making your team achieve its goals, it's also vital that plenty of time is spent on creating a sense of trust and support in your virtual team. Give members opportunities to get to know each other so they can figure out how to their individual skills can come together to help the team achieve its objectives. Where possible, plan for a physical team-building meeting, but if that can't happen, virtual gatherings will get the ball rolling, as would opportunities for team members to interact informally. Consider an "off hours" section on your team Web site for posting non-task messages, photos, and personal exchanges.

You Allow a Breakdown in Communication

One of the main reasons for the failure of virtual team is a lack of communication. When people aren't sharing the same office space and don't have the opportunity to pass quick messages or information by the water cooler or over a cup of coffee in the office, out of sight can quickly become out of mind. Schedule regular "meetings" for your team—and hold them without fail. Also, set up guidelines for how team members communicate with each other outside formal scheduled meetings. Just as too little communication among team members can cause failure, so too can too much information inundate team members and impede the team's progress. Some team communication really concerns a subset of the team and need not be sent to every member of the team. Flooding team members with communication is as problematic as a communication drought.

You Allow Confusion about Roles and Expectations

All members must understand both their role in the team and the expectations that the team leader has for the team and that the members have of each other. Never make assumptions and go out of your way to make sure that every person is up to speed about roles and expectations. If you are clear from the outset, it is much more likely that conflict will crop up later.

Where to Learn MoreBooks:

Brown, M. Katherine. Managing Virtual Teams: Getting the Most from Wikis, Blogs, and Other Collaborative Tools. Plano, TX: Wordware Publishing, 2007.

Duarte, Deborah L., and Nancy Tennant Snyder. Mastering Virtual Teams. 3rd ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2006.

Garton, Colleen and Kevin Wegryn. Managing Without Walls: Maximize Success with Virtual, Global, and Cross-cultural Teams. Lewisville, TX: MC Press, 2006.

Malone, Ollie. 101 Leadership Actions For Creating And Managing Virtual Teams. Amherst, MA: HRD Press, 2004.

Williams, Val. Virtual Leadership. Edison, NJ: Shadowbrook Publishing, 2002.

Web Sites:

"Virtual Teams," Wally Bock: www.bockinfo.com/docs/virteam.htm

"Virtually There?", FastCompany: www.fastcompany.com/magazine/56/virtual.html

"Virtual Teams—Global Leadership," globalchange.com: www.globalchange.com/vteams.htm

"Management Tips for Virtual Team Success," About.com: http://mobileoffice.about.com