Management & Organization

10 fundamental principles for effective virtual teams

Team management is tremendously enriching and remarkably challenging at the same time. And the challenge does not become any smaller, if your team is spread over different addresses or even the whole world. Here are 10 principles that help you make your virtual team work.

In Harvard Business Review Michael Watkins describes the following 10 basic principles for making your virtual team functional. Watkins’ focus is the 10 most important principles you have to remember during the first 90 days as new team leader.

1. Assemble the team physically early on
As Watkins describes, it may seem paradoxical to talk about assembling the team physically, when we're discussing virtual teams. But the truth is, none the less, that one-on-one conversations are more effective than virtual conversations when it comes to building relations and trust. If this is impossible, don't panic. Instead, focus on virtual teambuilding.

Spend your time making sure that team members get to know each other both personally and professionally, and create a shared vision and some principles for how the team should work.

2. Clarify assignments and processes, not just goals and roles
It is even more important than with traditional teams to focus on and design tasks and the processes it takes to solve them, when your team members are working form different places. Be as specific as possible. Simple descriptions and agreements are easier to obey. Create clarity on who is doing what and when.

3. Commit to a communications charter
In order to keep the team on the same track it's important to make sure that everyone on your virtual team agree on how, when and how much you communicate with each other. Agree on what type of media you use. When do you for instance write an e-mail vs. making a phone call or create a document?

4. Use the best communication methods
When you choose communication tools, you don't have to choose the newest. Rather, save the time it takes making the new ones work and choose based on how solid the tool is.

5. Build a team with a shared rhythm
When one or more team members work in different time zones, it's a challenge to create a shared rhythm. Even if everyone in the team shares time zone, different workplaces can also easily mean that it is difficult to maintain a “normal” work rhythm. In order to fight this, try to have your meetings at the same time and day, every week. If some of you work in different time zones, you should consider sharing the time zone burden equally among everyone by rotating the time of the meeting.

6. Agree on a shared language
If your team members are from different countries and cultures, misunderstandings easily happen. That is why it is important to discuss what for instance “yes” and “no” means. Write down what you agree upon in a shared forum.

7. Take a virtual coffee break
An important thing in a physical workplace it's difficult to recreate virtually, is the coffee break. The informal situations that takes place here, help create an emotional bond between employees are important to their level of motivation. As team leader or manager you can recreate this by arranging informal meetings online, via Skype or something similar, where the sole purpose is to talk about things that has nothing to do with work.

8. Clarify and monitor commitments
This is difficult in an ordinary team and the challenge is even greater in a virtual team. So Watkins suggests, that you encourage the team to agree upon some milestones and observe how far they get. This can be done quite easily with a shared board where everyone reports their sub-goals, specific activities, etc. The board must be visible for every member on the collaboration tool they use. However, make sure that this isn't causing too much details obsession. Nobody works well when micromanaged.

9. Cultivate shared management
While working out goals and activities provides an external motivation for the team members to stay focused and productive, you can create an inner motivation among them by ensuring that everyone takes part in leading the team. According to Watkins, you do this by delegating responsibility for particular projects, by team members coaching each other within each of their area of expertise or by turning team members into mentors for new team members.

10. Don't forget one-on-one interactions
An important role for every leader is one-on-one interactions. And as team leader you should never forget these. Ensure that these interactions are a reoccurring part of the team’s rhythm. If it is impossible to meet the team face to face, meet them via Skype or any similar video chat-service.

With these ten principles in mind it becomes easier for you to create a team that performs well.