How to Run High Performing Virtual Teams

Managing virtual teams is becoming the norm. Only one person in my team sits in the same office as me (and even then only 2–3 days per week). Many people I work with are on different continents and time zones. There are some people on my team that I’ve hired virtually, work with on a daily basis, and have never met face-to-face.

Managing a virtual team is fundamentally the same as managing a team you sit in the same office with. Success depends on many of the same factors; good communication, clear expectations, clear roles and correctly aligned incentives, and strong relationships.

But virtual is different. Some things are dialled up, some are dialled down. And if you don’t get it right, things can go south much more quickly than if you were all sitting in the same room, easily able to hash things out.

In developing our virtual teams module we came up with some guidelines that all well-performing virtual teams tend to follow. These aren’t rules, just questions to ask that will help ensure that your virtual team is performing at its best and avoiding common pitfalls.

Here are three of them:

1. Expectations

High-performing virtual teams know their purpose. As a team, they know what their objectives are; and, as individuals, they each know what their role is in meeting those objectives. Key questions to ask:

  • Does everyone on the team know why we’re collaborating? Do they know what success looks like?
  • Does each individual contributor know what their role is and how their individual goals are contributing to the team’s goals?
  • Are there forums for individual contributors to honestly communicate any confusion or lack of clarity about expectations to team leaders, as well as to each other?

2. Norms

One of the biggest challenges in virtual collaboration is establishing the formal and informal “rules” that guide the way we collaborate. High-performing virtual teams articulate the formal rules at the outset and are flexible enough to evolve over time as informal norms of behavior emerge. Key questions to ask:

  • Is there a clear set of rules about how we will be virtually collaborating, covering things like meeting times, communications protocols, the structure of virtual meetings, etc.?
  • Is there a process in place for evolving those rules in case they aren’t working, or if better ways of working emerge?
  • Are there built-in feedback mechanisms for individual contributors to propose new rules/norms to team leaders?

3. Relationships

There’s no such thing as a virtual water cooler. We can rarely grab drinks after work with our virtual team members. And yet, this informal relationship-building is an essential part of our work. In its absence, we have to find other meaningful ways to build virtual relationships. Key questions to ask:

  • How well do you know your fellow virtual team members? Do you know anything about them, other than their contributions on a specific project?
  • Is there a formal time and “space” in your virtual collaboration dedicated to getting to know your fellow collaborators?
  • Do you trust your fellow virtual collaborators? What could you do as a team to increase that level of trust?