Effective Teamwork in Virtual Teams

Whether you lead a virtual team or simply participate on one, there are several ways to make your teamwork more effective. Given the added complexities of working in disparate locations—often across time zones and borders—it is challenging to establish strong communication, mutual trust, and overall camaraderie.

As I stated in an earlier post, a virtual team can be defined as a group of people who work interdependently with a shared purpose across space, time, and organization boundaries using technology. Virtual teams face unique challenges at every stage of their incarnation, but developing effective teamwork early is especially important.

Like all teams, a strong foundation for a virtual team requires a solid and agreed upon purpose (mission, goals, etc.), clarity among stakeholder expectations, a common understanding of team membership, clear roles and responsibilities, an opportunity to build rapport and relationships, and agreed communication protocols. But unlike co-located teams, virtual teams need to be more proactive, deliberate, explicit and disciplined in every aspect of working together.

Here are some tips when building an effective virtual teamwork environment:

  1. Get to know each other by discovering commonalities. Without water cooler conversations or running into each other in hallways, getting to know one another needs to be more intentional than with co-located teams. Find out what you share in common by talking about things outside of the task at hand. Team building exercises can be conducted to encourage participants to open up and see each other outside of their workplace role.
  2. Encourage trust among all team members. Trust is earned over time and cannot be mandated, of course. Take the time to allow for this trust to build on your virtual team. Ensure that every member of the team feels appreciated and comfortable speaking openly and honestly. Hold every person accountable for what they say they will do. Again team building exercises can help make building trust more intentional and therefore accelerate the process.
  3. Ensure that team members interact with each other. Simply accomplishing individual tasks does not make for an effective team member. Each team member needs to know the group’s current priorities, they need to share knowledge, skills and experience with each other, and they need to learn from each other. Virtual team members don’t work alone, but together apart from one another. A virtual team is about a group of people working interdependently and therefore they need to interact in order to accomplish the group’s goals.
  4. Create a virtual community. The duty and responsibility team members have toward each other helps create a sense of belonging, which is essential in any community. It is no different in a virtual environment. Enable and encourage communication outside of standard methods and channels. Consider virtual rooms, online bulletin boards, instant messaging and video conferencing in addition to standard conference calls. If at all possible, get individuals together in the same physical space and make time for non-work conversations, particularly at the beginning or end of a project.
  5. Make it fun to be part of the group. Provide a “check-in” opportunity for everyone to speak up and be recognized at team meetings. Encourage humor and story telling among team members. Practical jokes can build camaraderie and ease tension as long as it is done in a respectful manner. And don’t forget to celebrate milestones and accomplishments both privately and publicly.

Effective teamwork may boil down to simply great communication, trust, respect and camaraderie. Implementing these five tips will go a long way in making teamwork on your virtual team more effective.

Mark Craemer                                                                            www.craemerconsulting.com

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