What Leads to Effective Virtual Teamwork?

Virtual Teaming

The April 2009 issue of the Communications of the ACM, a highly respected journal, published an article by Jay F. Nunanamker, Bruce A. Reining, and Robert O. Briggs on ‘Principles for Effective Virtual Teamwork.’ The authors derived these principles from their decade long experience of working with hundreds of virtual teams. I present these principles and also provide links to our past posts that may help our readers put those principles to practice.

Realign reward structures for virtual teams. Because virtual teams often have few motivators, leaders need to find ways to make virtual work consistent with individual goals and reward good performance. See one of our past posts, ‘Motivation in Virtual Teams: Lessons from Virtual Words,’ which discusses how to motivate virtual work.

Find new ways to focus attention on task. Virtual teams often lack a focal point, such as a whiteboard in a conference room, to focus attention and enable them to establish and maintain a shared understanding about the task at hand. This often leads to distractions. Shared windows or objects visible to all can help increase focus. In ‘Wonderland: A Tool for Online Collaboration,’ we discuss the use of shared objects in a virtual world for building the feeling that one is in a meeting with others.

Design activities that cause people to get to know each other. Because of their geographic dispersion, members of virtual teams often don’t know each other well. Leaders should design explicit activities to overcome this lack of knowledge of each other and promote trust and team building. Icebreakers are a great way to help team members learn about each other. Another complementary way is to build reliability within the team early on during the team’s activities. See ‘Building Trust in Virtual Teams‘ for more ideas.

Build a virtual presence. Virtual team members often tend to forget who they are working with during a virtual meeting. Reminders are, therefore, necessary. Displaying a roster of currently active participants can help, as can a leader’s implicit reminders (e.g., So what do our team members from Bangalore think about this?). In asynchronous virtual work, frequent email reminders from all team members and RSS alerts of contributions by team members to a common repository/discussion board would help. Such continuous communication also signals to team members that the project is alive and active.

Agree on standards and terminology. Diversity among team members can give rise to conflicting expectations related to how the team will work together, including the language of communication. Setting up a team compact early on during a team’s life cycle is extremely helpful. A team compact provides guidelines and boundaries for behavior within a team and clarifies what is expected from each member.

Leverage anonymity when appropriate. Anonymity may be needed on occasion for open and frank communication within the team. It is typically useful for divergent activities, such as brainstorming, and for sensitive discussions in which ideas from anyone may be perceived stereotypically rather than on the basis of their merits.

Be more explicit. In the absence of non-verbal cues, virtual team communication can be misunderstood. To alleviate this concern, details have to be communicated. To make sure that relevant details are not left out, scripts may be developed for work that tends to repeat itself (e.g., proposal preparation). Every virtual interaction should include a clear statement of purpose and expectations (including deliverables expected) to prevent misunderstanding. See additional pointers related to this principle in our post ‘It’s Not What You Say, It’s What They Hear.’ The Leading Virtually team believes that being explicit extends to social interaction as well, as described in two of our posts ‘Spread Your Virtual Smile, Really‘ and ‘Email Etiquette: Is The Thank You Email Simply A Thank You?

Train teams to self-facilitate.  An important requirement for this is that members of virtual teams should be trained about the challenges that virtual teams face and how they can overcome those challenges. Beyond this, formal training in how to facilitate group dynamics would be ideal. The Leading Virtually team has found the creation of a team compact and the use of After Action Reviews as very useful for enabling a team to facilitate itself.

Embed collaboration technology into everyday work. Ideally, the use of collaboration technology (e.g., blogs or wikis) should not be extra work over and beyond the everyday work processes. At one of the companies I advised, I suggested that status reports or activity plans that were normally sent via email be moved to individual blogs.

The article’s authors assumed that virtual teams have technology that works and that they have been trained on that. But in our experience, that assumption is often not tenable. Nevertheless, the article offers very good principles for leading virtual teams effectively.

Article written by

Surinder Kahai is an Associate Professor of MIS and Fellow of the Center for Leadership Studies at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton. He has a B. Tech in Chemical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology (Bombay), an M.S. in Chemical Engineering from Rutgers University, and a Ph.D. in Business Administration from the University of Michigan. Surinder has an active research program on leadership in virtual teams, computer-mediated communication and learning, collaboration in virtual worlds, CIO leadership, and IT alignment. His research has been published in several journals including Data Base for Advances in Information Systems, Decision Sciences, Group & Organization Management, Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of Management Information Systems, Leadership Quarterly, and Personnel Psychology. He is currently serving on the editorial boards of Group and Organization Management, IEEE-TEM, and the International Journal of e-Collaboration. He co-edited a Special Issue of Organizational Dynamics on e-leadership and a Special Issue of International Journal of e-Collaboration on Virtual Team Leadership. Surinder has won numerous awards for his teaching, including the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. Surinder has spoken on and consulted with several organizations in the U.S. and abroad on the topics of virtual team leadership, e-business, and IS-business alignment, and IS strategy and planning

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