Establishing a virtual team is a key part of a team’s long term effectiveness. Setting up virtual teams can be a challenging process, especially for team members who have never participated in a virtual team before. Focusing on a number of core elements as discussed below, should help a virtual team leader to more quickly get a virtual team up and running.
1. Choose an experienced leader
The leader of a virtual team has a large impact on the set up and success of a virtual team. Virtual teams tend to rely more heavily on a virtual team leader as they have less direct interaction between team members. Often communication flow in a virtual team is between members and the leader, rather than between members themselves (which is more typical of co-located teams).
As such, a virtual team leader needs to be someone who is comfortable managing people remotely, who can use the technology to effectively provide task instructions and build relationships in the absence of face to face interaction. As there is much to learn for first time virtual team leaders, we suggest that a leader has at least had previous leadership experience so that they can then concentrate on the differences a virtual team has. Read more about effective virtual team leaders.
2. Select members who are suited to working in virtual teams
Where virtual teams tend to fail, it is often a result of the lack of familiarity, physical distance and incompatible time zones of team members. One of the easiest ways to ensure the success of a virtual team is pick a few team members who already know each other. This way, trust (one of the more difficult aspects to develop virtually) may be established much faster. If it is not possible to find members who have worked together previously, try and arrange a face-to-face meeting at the start (as mentioned below) to develop trust swiftly.
Team members who are best suited to working in virtual teams tend to:
- be self motivated and can work independently
- experienced using different types of communication technologies
- require less interaction with colleagues
3. Choose appropriate technology
One of the important aspects of creating a good virtual team is to carefully choose the tools that are employed for communication. Relying on communication technologies that offer limited ability to transfer rich content (such as non-verbal information) may lead to challenging situations. For instance, often emails can be misinterpreted and could damage relationships and trust in the team.
In the start up phase, it is especially important to focus on using technologies that support relationship formation. Technology such as video conferencing allows people to form relationships more easily and have higher trust towards one another as they can see each other and share non verbal information.
During the set up of a virtual team, creating a teamsite (e.g. with Microsoft Sharepoint or similar technology) where the entire virtual team can exchange ideas, collaborate and motivate each other can prove useful. Teams spread across multiple locations need to be aware of all the relevant updates to a project so no one team member feels out of the loop.
4. Start with a face-to-face teambuilding
If you can, it is recommended to start the process of virtual team formation by bringing members of the virtual team together face-to-face. Use this time wisely to set the ground rules for the team, have social activities to help build trust and clarify the responsibilities of the team going forward. All of these activities can be very difficult to achieve in a purely virtual environment, so a short (even 1 to 2 day) face-to-face teambuilding can really help establish a virtual team.
It is also important to note how frequently or in which situations you should meet face-to-face throughout the lifecycle of the virtual team. Read more about the golden ratio of virtual meetings to face-to-face.
5. Understand the phases of a virtual team
Virtual teams, like any team in a co-located environment, go through a number of phases. At each different stage of the virtual team’s lifecycle it is important to note which technology works most effectively. Furst, Reeves, Rosen, and Blackburn (2004) have described the different stages of a virtual team according to Tuckman’s stages of group development. We have then taking this further to suggest what technology is best for each stage of the virtual team’s lifecycle:
About the author
5 tips to establishing a successful virtual team - Virtual Teams Blog