High performance virtual teams by design – part I

My approach to team design to succeed with a virtual team

Key factors for successful virtual teams: tips for management and leadership – part I

The foundation for high performance virtual teams lies in the selection of team members and the design of the team. Only then it becomes important how one leads such a team. In this blog I  share with you the approach I have successfully used over the years in leading virtual teams. In the first part, I will talk about the key aspects I paid attention to when selecting team members and designing the team. In the second part, I will describe some important elements for running the virtual team.


The situation of virtual teams and their issues

It goes without saying that virtual work in teams has become the norm in global organisations. There is a widespread view in global organisations that virtual teams are managed badly in comparison to co-located teams. When speaking to leaders or members of globally dispersed teams I hear about the same fundamental challenges over and over:

  • building relationship is perceived as the biggest challenge in a virtual context
  • not enough attention is paid to the cohesion and trust amongst virtual team members
  • building a shared sense of purpose is perceived as being difficult or is ignored
  • last but not least, team leaders often rely too much on electronic communications

Linda Stewart, CEO of Interaction Associates in Boston summarises the success factors neatly in one sentence when she published her work on virtual teams in Forbes online:

“It turns out that a good, time-honoured focus on interpersonal skills and process discipline – the nuts and bolts of collaboration – is key to driving strong results from virtual teams.”


So what approach do I take when I start working with a virtual team?

First, focus on the selection of the team members

It is not always possible to freely select members for a (virtual) team, as departments frequently nominate a person for a team or roles predefine team members. Despite this I always try my best to have a final say in who should be in the team when different functions decide on how they would want to be represented. In particular, I pay attention to the following skills and competencies of the people I would like to have in my virtual teams. They should

  • be able to work independently and be self-motivated
  • be willing to trust people first, instead of wanting to see first a proof of trustworthiness from others
  • be enthusiastic to collaborate with other members of a team
  • possess good communication skills for clarity and conciseness in their exchanges
  • be very much result oriented as well as happy to follow fundamental rules and protocols in the team

These elements have for me the same weight as the technical/task skills needed to perform the work for which the team has been set-up. There may be a case where a person has unique technical skills and lacks in the above skills and competencies. I would recommend paying specific attention and supporting that person to develop these skills.

Then co-create fundamental processes with your team members

Although any team benefits from defining fundamental processes at the start of the work, this needs much more attention in a virtual team. The frequency of interaction is generally much lower compared to a co-located team. And that does not allow to quickly resolve situations where there is a lack of clarity. For me, defining -with all members involved- a set of rules on how we collaborate in the team is always the foundation for all these processes. As soon as they are established it is much easier to identify the processes which need to be defined in order to make the teamwork easier and successful.

As always there is a risk to over-do the development of processes. However, so far I have only come across virtual teams that have not defined these fundamental processes sufficiently. As soon as you have started working as a team you should regularly review the processes and adapt as the team matures.

Last but not least, ensure competence in the platforms and technologies used

A lot of studies show that success of virtual teams lies beyond a reliance on the latest and greatest technology platforms and tools for communication and sharing. However, one should not forget that technology is vital to connecting members of virtual teams. Hence, I have always checked with the team members that all of them felt competent to work with the platforms either for information exchange or live communication so that this never became a source for stress or a nuisance. If a person didn’t feel confident I ensured that they had access to the appropriate training. (see also my blog on technology do’s and don’ts)

Paying attention to these aspects when setting up a virtual team always gave me a good foundation on which the teamwork could start well. Ignoring these at the start makes it harder to get the team to perform well. But then it also requires good management and leadership when running a virtual team. In the second part of this blog (next week) I will describe a few elements I consider really important to bring a team to high performance and successful delivery.

If you want to discuss this in more detail, feel free to get in touch with me direct so we can explore how you can ensure that your virtual teams perform well and are successful.


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