Monday 3 November 2008

A brief guide to successful virtual teams

More from my personal archives… I’ve hinted at these ideas before, but here is more comprehensive overview.

While it might not be recognised, in many organisations collaborating together as part of a virtual project team or a remote workgroup (where the staff are not co-located with each other, including tele-workers) is a normal fact of working life.

For example, even in a large organisation people may find themselves working virtually even if they are based in the same place, because they have little or no face-to-face interaction with the people they are working with. Virtual teams and remote workgroups can also form between business partners or even with customers. If you spend the majority of your working day working closely with a group of people using technology for communication, then the chances are you are working virtually.

A note on terminology: Unfortunately, the terminology of virtual teams is a little clumsy – but for want of a better word that we can all agree on, I will stick with it here but feel free to use what ever term you feel most comfortable with.

I believe there are three key challenges for virtual teams and remote workgroups:

  1. Willingness - Getting the right balance between necessity and opportunity that creates a willingness to work this way;
  2. Technology - Having the right collaboration tools and technology available; and
  3. Skills - Ensuring people have the skills and capacity to work as a leader or part of a virtual team or remote workgroup.

Unfortunately, most organisations only ever focus on point 2 (the technology) and often use a stick approach with point 1 (creating willingness), so that people are forced to collaborate due to circumstance beyond their control. Incidentally, Web 2.0 technologies can help with point 2, but can’t fix points 1 or 3 alone.

There are a number of specific management issues with virtual teams that include:

  1. Communication;
  2. Time management;
  3. Oversight;
  4. Leadership and motivation;
  5. Dealing with conflict; and
  6. Performance management.

But hang on – doesn’t this all sound familiar? If you were thinking that these are the same issues that affect traditional co-located teams and workgroups, you are right! So, what’s the difference with virtual teams?

In co-located teams, work practices and business culture for how people are managed, how people communicate and how people work together are typically implicit and assumed. However, in a virtual team we must surface these practices and norms through explicit and deliberate management.

To explain further, in traditional teams and workgroups, the workspace is defined by the physical proximity with a shared physical environment. Virtual teams and workgroups are defined by how they environment they use to communicate and share information. But remember, technology is only important to virtual teams because it enables communication.

Of course, another issue is that many people may find themselves as part of both a physical and one or more virtual teams, adding to the management complexity of the situation.

In addition to the three key challenges I described above, I believe there are three remote workspace hygiene factors you need to consider to maintain a healthy virtual working environment – they are:

  1. Control – managers need to have some system of control and similarly staff need to have clear expectations, roles and responsibilities assigned;
  2. Physical resources – people need access to the physical resources they need to do their job (and not just technology resources either); and
  3. Communications – clear, regular and explicit communication systems need to be in place.

Fail to provide these minimum “hygiene” factors and your virtual team is likely to run into trouble fairly soon. Unfortunately in a virtual team, you may not be aware that things are failing until it is too late.

These are some specific workspace considerations to think about that relate to these “hygiene” factors:

  • What information and knowledge needs to be shared?
  • How would each person prefer to receive information and interact with other people?
  • How will people coordinate the work or outcomes that need to be achieved?
  • How will you deal with disagreements or conflict?
  • How will you reward success and recognise achievements?

Now that you understand some of the management issues of virtual teams and remote workgroups, what are the steps you should work through when starting a new virtual team or refreshing an existing remote workgroup?

  1. Identify all participants and stakeholders;
  2. Identify expected outputs (i.e. goals, objective, processes etc);
  3. Acquire infrastructure and resources;
  4. Socialise and establish a group communication plan, protocols, roles and responsibilities;
  5. Managing training and development needs; and
  6. Review and refresh periodically.

Lets focus on a couple of aspects of this process – technology selection and the group communication plan:

Some tips on selecting technology to support virtual teams:

  • No single technology is essential to the success of a remote team or workgroup – technology is only important because it enables communication in virtual workspaces;
  • Consider both where and how people work with their information and communication needs;
  • Know when and when not to use technology to communicate; and
  • Don’t forget to provide training and support on the tools you select.

And finally, some tips on the group communication plan:

  • Use a combination of communication models – pick the method and content that match the needs of your virtual workspace.
  • Allow opportunities for “socialisation” and trust building (the newer Web 2.0 social computing tools are excellent for this purpose);
  • Be practical and considerate of team members other work commitments and other personal issues; and
  • Don’t forget to build in time for informal 1-to-1 communication outside the group communication plan.

Follow this model and the tips provided here and you are long way to implementing and sustaining healthy and happy virtual teams and remote workgroups. However, feel free to give me a call if you need further assistance with managing virtual teams or setting up the supporting resources and infrastructure.


  1. Hi James,

    Thanks to @Marigo on Twitter I have read your post on the virtual teams - which resonates with my inner self:-))

    Looking forward to further thought exchange.


  2. Thanks to a close friend and fellow social media backpacker contact Mark Lewin, I too ended up here and read your interesting article.

    Our company CAL tackles the whole 'virtual team' question from a different angle - addressing the soft skills as well as the technology elements that make up successful virtual teams really excel.

    We list the key factors as our three C's

    Happy to talk more on this one with you.


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