Sure-Fire Ways to Ruin Your Virtual Team Success

In April 2016 RW3 CultureWizard, a New York-based consulting firm specializing in intercultural training, conducted its fourth biennial survey of global virtual teams with 1,372 respondents from 80 countries. The results showed that corporate teams were becoming almost entirely virtual. Furthermore, 48% of respondents revealed that more than half of their teams include members from other nations.

This proves that virtual teams are a fact of the business world. It also highlights strong emphasis on ability to manage remotely and across cultures. If you are one of those managers who think this extends what you do routinely, the survey will surprise you: 96% of leaders rated their leadership as effective. By contrast, 58% of team participants indicated that leaders were not adequately prepared to lead virtual multicultural teams.

There is good news though. Many companies are discovering how to make virtual teams work. They’re learning that the key to success lies in revising their management practices and going beyond the usual. SAP, the world’s largest inter-enterprise software company has more than 30,000 employees in 60 countries. IBM employs more than 200,000 people throughout the world, GE — more than 90,000. We will discuss the experience of a small team, Asana, the web and mobile application designed to help teams track their work.

Here’s how you can learn from their epic empowerment and other measures to supercharge virtual collaboration and lead your dispersed team to success.

1. Leverage simultaneity

People who do not understand each other will not collaborate. When I message on Slack, I see my colleague reply. It is like talking to her, seeing her mental activity going on, live. This creates a dialog where we can think together, learn each other’s intensions and influence each other. When in the past I wrote an email, I had to wait for a reply. Email gave me a record of her activity, already complete. This removed the important simultaneity between meaning making and language.

“When people produce language as they are engaged in the mental event it expresses, they produce language with particular features — features which make an audience feel the meanings very much in those words (Elbow, 2000).”

A spontaneous message to a colleague about something happening also lends presence to the communication. Given the ever-growing pressures on attention and memory, presence guarantees that the message will be understood and acted upon.

2. Redefine authority

“In the future, the source of human achievement will not be extraordinary individuals, but extraordinary combinations of people.” (Hargrove, 1998)

Connections between people in a virtual team are temporary. People work on cross-functional projects that form and separate at a rapid rate. Connections are also weaker: 41% of corporate staff never meet in person. Whether the team member is permanent or not, experientially she is outside the company’s control zone. Companies can no longer control their people. They can influence them.

“To control means that an action is both necessary and sufficient to produce the intended outcome. To influence means that the action is not sufficient; it is only a co-producer.” (Gharajedaghi, 1999)

Co-producing the experience of your team at work is key to managing them. You can no longer have people work for you. You get them to follow you.

This is how Asana co-founder Justin Rosenstein describes their team: “If we drew an org chart, instead of having the CEO on top, we’d have the CEO on the bottom. It’s like a tree, where individual contributors are the fruit — the people doing the work — and managers are supporting branches.”

To achieve this structure, you need a deeper understanding of people’s motivation. Don’t think in terms of money because salary is a hygiene factor (Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory).

What people want? Give them a choice and you will see. To understand what this means, observe yourself. When do we perform best? When you consider yourself the person with the authority and knowledge to act. Whether you are making a meal for your family, repairing your bike or building your house, you know what to do and how to do it. You will do your best and the result will be heart-warming. Your team too needs to have a choice of what to do and how to do it.

“We’ve been using a model we call Distributed Authority, where we structure the company around Areas of Responsibilities (AoRs). For any given area of the company, there is ultimately one Directly Responsible Individual (DRI) who’s responsible for good outcomes and who’s empowered to make the call on any decisions in that area — even if their teammates and their manager disagree with them.”

3. Build trust

We now see that it is important for people to have choice. How about working together as a team? Will the company attain its goals under these conditions? Yes, people decide the “what” and the “how” but they are not alone. Everyone else is doing the same thing. This happens in projects with other team members and customers involved. These other players form the “elastic boundaries” of the situation of each team member. They pose demands to her time, attention, the quality of her work. Social translucence does the rest: “supporting coherent behavior by making participants and their activities visible to one another”. Negotiations with people shape the outcome of each work episode, stimulate participation and build trust.

Rosenstein states: “For this system to work, mutual trust is critical. Trust lets you empower each person to run their own experiments and move quickly.”

4. Beef up your processes

Teams are led by people who can take leadership. What if no one wants to be a leader? Sometimes the decision to make is such a big, bold, risky one that no one is ready to act.

We need another source of action, a facilitator. The leader acts in a problematic situation. Whatever she says has performativity, signifies an action or identity for the others. The facilitator has another role: her number one function is to coach and empower people to find a resolution. This is distributed decision making at its best.

“Distributed decision making is a decision-making process where several people are involved to reach a single decision, for example, a problem solving activity among a few persons when the problem is too complex for anyone alone to solve it.” (Adam & Humphreys, 2008)

The outcome of so many people thinking and acting together makes the company immune to anyone’s mistake. Too few companies appreciate how this can affect their competitiveness.

5. Choose the right people

Three things that real teams limit are time, space and identity. Virtual teams do not have these boundaries.

Let’s talk about time first. In a virtual team, your employees may work for 12 hours or more, especially if they work in different time zones (almost always). And they can work whenever they want.

Space: they can work wherever they want, a café, shared office, etc. But the space feels empty as there are no people around. People can get disconnected easily as they don’t have a chance to share something about their work, their successes or frustrations.

Identity: people need a group to identify with but no such permanent group exists in the team.

All this creates tremendous pressure on people. Discipline becomes key to finding balance. Building rhythms and social rituals as well as maintaining informal dialogue helps people cope with isolation and chameleon-like roles.

And a final, bonus point. It takes great leadership to build great teams. Become a stronger leader yourself.

1. Be alert, spot potential problems and anticipate needs. Ask yourself what you can do differently to attain your goals.

2. Share your thinking so people can find their own solutions. Be aware of your thought patterns, limitations and preferences.

3. Be flexible to learn from success and failure alike. Think of what you will do differently next time.

4. Earn people’s respect by being fair, competent, humble and open. When was the last time your performance did not match your expectations?

“When you ask people about what it is like being part of a great team, what is most striking is the meaningfulness of the experience. People talk about being part of something larger than themselves, of being connected, of being generative. It becomes quite clear that, for many, their experiences as part of truly great teams stand out as singular periods of life lived to the fullest. Some spend the rest of their lives looking for ways to recapture that spirit.” (Senge, 1999)


Adam, F., & Humphreys, P. (2008). Encyclopaedia of decision making and decision support technologies. Hershey, Pa.: Information Science Reference.

Elbow, P. (2000). Everyone can write: Essays toward a hopeful theory of writing and teaching writing. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gharajedaghi, J. (1999). Systems thinking: Managing chaos and complexity: A platform for designing business architecture. Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Hargrove, R. A. (1998). Mastering the art of creative collaboration. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Peter Senge: The learning organisation. (1999). London: Institute of Management Foundation.