How to Define Your Virtual Team’s Purpose and Identity

By Tara Powers

Having a clear purpose for your virtual team and every team member role impacts how you interview, who you hire, how you work with other teams in the company, and what your goals, priorities, decisions, problem-solving methods, workflow, processes, and more are.

The steps to defining purpose is much deeper than simply stating your team exists to “find new business”, “make the company money”, “hire great employees”, “handle customer service”, or “build widgets”. A powerful team purpose trumps everything in business. It attracts the type of team members that go above and beyond to make sure the team hits its goals. A strong purpose statement answers the age-old question: Why are you here and why is this team important?

The following sections walk through several steps to help you define a powerful purpose aligned with your company vision for your virtual team, communicate why your team is important, define your team priorities, and put a stake in the ground for how your team will be remembered.

Align your virtual team with company vision and values

Often referred as the secret sauce to success or the glue that makes it all work, alignment creates the guiding path to what gets done, how it gets done, and how teams work together. It’s a consistent message that flows between strategy and culture. It starts at the top by defining what your company stands for and cascades throughout your organization to impact even minor day-to-day tasks.

Think of alignment as golden thread that runs through your organization, down to every team, to every job role, and to every person. It should be apparent from your vision, values, purpose, culture, operating guidelines, strategy, systems, processes, tenants, and more. The Alignment Funnel illustrates the importance of alignment.

virtual-teams-alignment-funnel
© Power Resource Center

The Alignment Funnel.

When strong levels of alignment exist across an organization, financial decisions, hiring and firing decisions, and even customer acquisitions are a heck of a lot faster, simpler, and dare I say, strategic. For example, if one of your top strategies as a business is product differentiation, then examples of alignment on your team could look like:

  • Hiring innovators and inventors
  • Setting up a team work culture that embraces a try-it mentality
  • Providing your employees time to research the latest technology and discover new ideas and then report back to the team about them

Establishing clear organizational and team alignment is critical for high performance on a virtual team because these two alignments drive the team purpose, goals, priorities, and day-to-day decisions and actions. Because you can’t watch over team members, stop by their desk for a conversation, or meet with them regularly face-to-face, clear alignment provides virtual team members with clear guidelines when making decisions or solving problems on their own.

When I work with teams, I strongly advocate for establishing a habit of building, demonstrating, and discussing alignment. As a consultant, the first question I ask to understand the value of what they are asking me to do is “How does this team program, coaching initiative, or intervention align with your purpose, vision, or values?” If alignment doesn’t exist, then they’re probably doing something that isn’t important or is a waste of time.

Here are several questions you can discuss with your team and finalize the answers as you consider purpose and alignment for your virtual team:

  • What is the overarching directive or core purpose of our company other than making a profit? What are we here to do? Some examples include
    • Walt Disney World: To make people happy
    • Southwest Airlines: To connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel
  • Why does our company purpose matter?
  • How does the work on our team support our company purpose? What is our team here to do?
  • How does each job role on this team support our team purpose? What is each job here to do?
  • Why are the company values meaningful?
  • How can our team live these values out loud every day, such as
    • In team meetings?
    • On team projects?
    • When faced with conflict?
    • When onboarding a new team member?
  • How do we agree to treat each other on our team?
  • How will we know that our team has been successful in living our purpose?

When building alignment for your virtual team, look for every opportunity to tie the work being done to what’s important to the company. Doing so gives breadth and depth to projects, goals, and roles in your organization. Regularly check in with your virtual team members to discuss alignment and why what they’re doing matters and how it ties into the bigger picture.

Communicate why your virtual team exists

Even though your team may be 100 percent virtual or partially virtual, every team member needs to have a reason for getting out of bed in the morning and showing up. No matter the field your team is in — sales, software development, marketing, recruiting, or customer service — talking about what work you’re doing, why it matters, and who it impacts is important.

Being able to clearly articulate to all team members why your team is necessary and why every job on the team is necessary will attract team members who care about your message and show up every day because they believe they’re making a difference. Everyone wants more than a paycheck; they want to know that the work they’re doing matters.

Here are four questions to discuss with your team and help you communicate your team’s purpose:

  • Who do we serve? Who is our customer? (Think both externally and internally.) You may serve more than one type of customer.
  • What product or service do we provide?
  • Why does this product or service matter? What problem does it solve? What benefit does it provide?
  • How are we different or unique? What are we known for?

Putting it all together, you end up with a statement or story that is meaningful and powerful. Here’s an example:

We provide the most up-to-date software development research before it hits the market to our developers and engineers, helping them to build best-in-class healthcare systems that save people’s lives.

Communicating the team’s purpose and the impact it has can change slightly from project to project or even shift mid-project. This clarity can provide focus, engagement, and momentum. It helps the team move forward in the same direction and in pursuit of the same goal. For example, in the movie Apollo 13 rocket engineers quickly changed their purpose from sending astronauts to the moon and back home safely to getting the astronauts home alive.

Make sure your purpose is simple, concise, free of corporate jargon, easy to remember, and inspiring. Furthermore, it needs to highlight your team’s uniqueness. Your purpose is what makes people on your team want to spend energy on moving in the direction of progress. A good team purpose makes people feel fulfilled and valued.

Be clear about virtual team priorities

Without fail, there will be more projects, goals, tasks, requests, and requirements than your team can possibly implement and focus on in any given week, month, or quarter. When considering how to help your virtual team achieve high levels of performance and success, focus on establishing, adjusting, and communicating priorities on a regular basis. And because your team is virtual, you must keep everyone on the same page with direction, focus, and shifting goals.

Prioritization requires balancing the benefit of each task or goal your team is responsible for against the benefits, costs, and implications involved to decide what’s more important. Having clear priorities for your virtual team will help the team:

  • Focus on the most important requests and requirements
  • Plan for workflow, handoffs, deliverables, timeframes, and so on
  • Manage their projects more effectively
  • Make decisions when presented with conflicting goals
  • Allocate their time, energy, and resources

Most teams that I work with don’t have a good method for prioritization, and it’s not because prioritization is difficult. It’s because prioritization takes a commitment of time and a structured practice to determine where to focus. Here is a seven-step method for prioritization that I recommend:

  1. Build a collective list of tasks. List all team member tasks that significantly impact results. (After your team is established, you can do this together using a virtual whiteboard.) Remove any ongoing goals such as coming in under budget or hitting revenue goals.
  2. Identify tasks between urgent versus important. Any tasks that have serious consequences to the team, business, or your customers if not completed in the next 90 days are considered urgent. Focus on the following to help you break down tasks into the two categories:
    • Put tasks in one of two columns: Urgent or Important.
    • Analyze the value for each urgent and important task to the team and business by assessing the level of impact each task has to people, process, or profit.
    • Rank them in order of urgency first, followed by value.
    • Analyze dependencies necessary to complete urgent tasks.
  3. Define tasks that always take priority. These tasks can be major client requests, CEO requests, or system breakdowns that immediately move to the top of the urgent column.
  4. Determine time, resources, and effort required. Making this determination is helpful when you have too many priorities. It helps you decide whether to check off the low effort priorities first or start on high effort priorities.
  5. Start cutting. Only focus on priorities that your team can reasonably accomplish in the next three to six months with the time and people resources you have available. If accomplishing more priorities is necessary, ask for more resources.
  6. Assign tasks and review regularly. Clarify what needs to be done to accomplish the priority, who is going to do what, and when the tasks need to be finished. Review progress on priorities consistently with your team.
  7. Be ready to adjust. Change happens every day at a rapid pace. Prepare your team members for shifting priorities by keeping them updated on any recent developments or company decisions that may impact their priorities.

Virtual team members can easily get off track if priorities aren’t clear and progress isn’t regularly assessed. Keep in mind that your team members should only have one top priority at a time or else they’ll think everything is important, won’t understand what matters most, and will have difficulty deciding on where to focus.

Always communicate to your team that although one person may be the expert assigned to complete a task or priority, the entire team is responsible for achieving it. This creates a shared team goal and support for team priorities, no matter where someone is located.

What do you want your virtual team to be known for

If your virtual team doesn’t have a good team brand or reputation from the get-go, changing poor first impressions can be an uphill battle. With a lack of face-to-face interactions, social outings (where team members can get to know each other), or personal contact with others, after your team has lost credibility, your virtual team leader and all team members will need to work hard to regain it. That’s why I recommend that in collaboration with your team members, you discuss and agree on what you want to be known for or what you want others — whether it’s other teams, customers, vendors, or the CEO — to say about you.

Maybe your team wants to be known as the go-to experts or the fastest problem solvers in the west. Whatever it is, discuss and agree as a team on how you all can achieve this recognition in every interaction and with every opportunity.