4 Steps to a Successful Virtual Team

All teams face challenges in their quest to be effective. The reality for virtual teams is that they face greater complexity and uncertainty as they strive to overcome the barriers of time, distance, and communications. When successful, virtual teams enable the best talent to come together to amplify energy, competencies, and creativity. But, the challenges should not be underestimated.

Current Virtual Team Research

The dawn of the World Wide Web brought with it the opportunity to communicate easily and instantly across geographies and time zones. In parallel, shifts in business models, expectations, and attitudes toward work, accelerated the use of virtual teams. A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management showed that more than ⅔ of multinational organizations utilize virtual teams. In their meta-analysis of virtual team research, Gilson et al., (2014) reviewed 441 research studies, identifying key themes across the studies. Specific to virtual team effectiveness, the authors highlighted:

  • The increased importance of selecting the right people in terms of personality, work style preference, and comfort with technology. This is particularly important with cross-cultural virtual teams.
  • The need for training and coaching specific to virtual team effectiveness.
  • The heightened importance of the team leader’s ability to read the motivational state of the team members, emphasizes the critical role of consistent feedback.
  • The critical role of fostering and maintaining a high level of trust.
In their article on strategies for building effective virtual teams, Ford, Piccolo, and Ford (2016) echo Gilson et al., emphasizing that teams with a high degree of trust are more proactive, more focused on task completion, more opportunistic, and provide more substantive, productive feedback. The authors’ research also supports an earlier HBR article, Getting Virtual Teams Right, by Keith Ferrazzi. In his article, Ferrazzi emphasizes the importance of the right people and team size, role clarity, a team leader that gets the team norms right, fosters trust, encourages open dialog, and establishes clear guidelines, and the right level of support – especially technology.

Shared understanding, integration of fundamental processes, and trust are three key enabling conditions for virtual team effectiveness.

4 Steps to Building a Successful Virtual Team

Two key conclusions can be drawn from the volume of research on building effective virtual teams. First, virtual teams and co-located face-to-face teams share a common framework in terms of the actions that lead to a highly-effective team: solid team fundamentals, a team leader that understands individual team member motivation, and the entire team focusing on consistently closing gaps across key relationships within the team. And, second, building a highly-effective virtual team requires team leadership skills and experience that goes beyond what is needed for success with local, face-to-face teams.

To be successful, virtual team leaders must focus on:

  1. Frequently gathering feedback from all team members on their expectations versus their actual experiences on the team, understanding gaps, and constantly closing them across the key relationships between the team leader and team members, between teammates, and across other teams.
  2. Understanding each team member in terms of the purpose they find in their role, the competencies they possess to carry out that purpose, and the level of freedom they need to be fully engaged and effective.
  3. Ensuring those team fundamentals including the purpose of the team, choosing the right people for working in a virtual team, and aligning team support with the teams’ goals, are in place. In addition, the very nature of a virtual team demands that the best possible communications technologies are provided and used by the team.
  4. Developing strong, healthy team norms including trust across the team, ensuring a high degree of conversation equality, and psychological safety. Conversational equality and feel safe to speak up are essential for a high-functioning virtual team.

In addition, virtual team leaders must recognize the impact of varied work contexts and diverse geographic proximity on developing a shared understanding – a collective way of organizing relevant knowledge such as work processes – and team success. Having a shared understanding across the team enables people to anticipate the behaviors of their teammates. This enables teamwork to progress with less monitoring, greater resource efficiency, and less duplication of effort. Shared understanding is also essential for improving the satisfaction and well-being of team members, which can contribute to better team performance. Building highly-effective virtual teams take the art and science of team leadership to another level. Keep that reality in mind as you deploy your virtual teams and you will significantly increase the chances of their success.

Ford, R. C., Piccolo, R. F., & Ford, L. R. (2016). Strategies for building effective virtual teams: Trust is key. Business Horizons. doi:10.1016/j.bushor.2016.08.009.

Gilson, L.L., Maynard, M.T., Young, N.C.J., Vartiainen, M., Hakonen, M. (2014). Virtual Teams Research 10 Years, 10 Themes, and 10 Opportunities. Journal of Management, doi: 10.1177/0149206314559946


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About the Author

Dr. Jeb Hurley is a leading expert on team dynamics and building high-performance hybrid / remote teams. He guides leaders in understanding and influencing human behavior and creating trust and psychological safety. Jeb’s innovative, behavioral science-based approach to leadership development improves team performance and people’s wellbeing faster and at a lower cost. Learn more about Jeb’s work at Brainware Partners.