10 Predictors of Virtual Team Success

By Tara Powers

Virtual teams have different needs than teams who are located in the same office. If you’re not careful, the literal distance between team members can create figurative distances. From there you can expect communication breakdown, reduced productivity, disengagement, confusion, mistrust, and ultimately, failure. And when virtual teams fail, usually the virtual part gets the blame — not the lack of planning for their specific needs.

This article can safeguard you from virtual team failure. Issues can arise if these 10 things aren’t managed effectively. Here are the top predictors of success for your virtual team. Think of it as a checklist to guarantee your virtual team success.

Having the Right Connectivity Technology

Virtual teams rely heavily on technology to connect team members. Technology is essential for virtual teams, but remember that although it exists to enable team communication and collaboration, it can’t replace good management.

Make sure your technology choices support exactly what your team needs. Think about functionality when making your technology decisions. Consider using platforms that integrate all types of communication and include these key components: collaboration, project management, document sharing and creation, video and audio conferencing, instant messaging, scheduling/shared calendar, and social networking. Most highly effective virtual teams have tools that support these functions.

Hiring the Right Virtual Team Leader

If you’re the person responsible for finding the virtual team leader for your organization, make sure you do your research and hire the leader who best meets your team’s needs. When searching for a team leader, remember the following:

  • They need to have strong management skills, but they also need a healthy dose of additional skills to successfully lead a virtual team, such as communication skills, collaboration skills, and the ability to establish clear roles and expectations — and then get out of the way.
  • They must trust their team and instill that culture of trust throughout the team.
  • They must be intuitive, flexible, comfortable with hands-off management, and experienced with the technology that connects the team.
  • They require strong interpersonal and team-building skills.

Not all managers are cut out for leading a team they don’t see face-to-face every day. Leaders who excel at managing co-located teams may not necessarily be great leaders of virtual teams. A management style that favors a top-down, hierarchical structure, a heavy supervisory role, and a strong clock-watching philosophy isn’t going to be successful in a virtual team environment.

Hiring the Right Virtual Team Members

Virtual team members also need a special skill set. In fact, a virtual team’s success is based in large part on the strength of its members. Virtual team members need to have a few common characteristics, including independence, resilience, and excellent communication and organization skills. They must have self-motivation, the ability to focus, and the ability of using a variety of technology tools.

Job skills are great, but even more important are soft skills, such as problem solving, empathy, conscientiousness, and emotional intelligence. Courtesy and respect become more important when workers are remote and nonverbal communication is limited.

Establishing Clear Virtual Team Vision and Values

Your team’s vision statement drives behaviors, creativity, commitment, engagement, and determination.

The best vision statements are aligned with company values, are visible and achievable, are inspirational, and define a future state. Make sure that they’re clear, memorable, and ambitious, and developed by consensus. One of the important things in the vision and values in inclusion. Everyone needs to have a say and a sense of ownership.

The vision of virtual teams is no different, but the values of virtual teams should include the following factors: accountability, trust, respect, and emotional intelligence. These values are critical to virtual team success.

Aligning Virtual Team Goals with Company Goals

One of the most important responsibilities of a leader is to show his team how to align behaviors, activities, and priorities with the company’s strategic goals. These are no different for virtual team leaders. In fact, they may be even more important because the team is dispersed.

Don’t create team goals in a vacuum. Ensure they’re in-line with the company’s overall goals, which ensures that a team’s work — big or small — is impacting the business. Aligning team goals with company goals also makes the work more meaningful and dramatically increases employee engagement. If your team members know how their work impacts the business, they care more about achieving the team’s goals and improving the company’s performance.

Having a Solid Virtual Team Agreement in Place

Every team needs a written working agreement, which is the first step to good team building. In addition to minimizing friction between teammates, an agreement is great for introducing new team members to the group culture. Most of all, the agreement gives all team members a template for what is expected during their day-to-day work.

Creating team agreements must be an inclusive process, not dictated by upper management. Only your team truly knows what it needs. The team working agreement is a contract between all members. Treat it as a living document by revisiting it periodically and making updates as needed.

Using a Communication Strategy

I read recently that communication is the oxygen of a distributed company. I couldn’t agree more. Virtual teams need solid communication strategies to survive. When team members are spread across multiple cities and countries, creating and then utilizing policies and practices to ensure connectivity across multiple communication channels is critical.

The first general rule is to give each communication method you use a designated purpose. Every team member needs to have a game plan for how to best get in touch with teammates for different situations. This clarity will help avoid wasted time, frustration, and missed connections.

Your virtual team communication strategy needs to include a variety of scheduled and unscheduled communication methods. Scheduled events like regular team video calls, one-on-one meetings with each team member and the leader, and regular milestone and project update meetings ensure that your team is managing workflow, hitting targets and goals, and getting the support it needs to be successful. With unscheduled or less structured communication methods such as live chats, instant messaging, and social networking, team members can use less formal written communication styles and can (and should!) connect to discuss nonwork topics like getting a quick answer to a question or to recap Sunday’s football game. These informal communication tools keep teams connected and engaged but aren’t the most effective way to track progress or manage tasks.

Agreeing on a Process for Virtual Team Workflow

Having a team workflow process is another success factor for virtual teams. It’s basically the road map for how things get done on your team. You want to create an environment for people to do their best work.

Great workflows keep everyone on the same page, reduce confusion, eliminate bottlenecks, and create efficiency. Although many tools and systems are available to help, keep it simple. Project management tools can get detailed, which is often required, but fight the urge to overcomplicate things. Evaluate processes regularly and eliminate steps that are unnecessary.

Using an Onboarding Strategy for New Virtual Team Members

Gone are the days when new hires are welcomed in person and introduced around the office. Virtual employee onboarding occurs through phone calls or video chat, where new hires rarely meet their team members face-to-face. Hence, that’s where having your team vision, goals, agreements, communication strategy, and workflow already in place really pays off.

Those policies and practices guide your onboarding process. Don’t make successful onboarding for a new virtual team building all business; include introductions, discussions about team culture, and time to get to know coworkers and their after-hours interests.

Actively Managing Executive Perceptions

Is a virtual team like the proverbial tree falling in a forest? If you can’t see the team at work, is work happening? My research confirms that a productivity perception gap does exist. When team members and team leaders report that virtual team productivity is strong, executives overseeing them often don’t share that same opinion.

The answer to solving the perception gap is detailed planning and communication with results and data. Virtual teams are measured in large part by metrics so you already have the milestones and progress to report. Formalize the communication process with executives to make sure they’re receiving regular communications on your team’s contribution.