How to Determine Virtual Team Member Roles

By Tara Powers

Defining your team members’ roles, the function they will perform, and the way they need to interact with other team members can help you hire the right people for the job and create a sense of clarity and calmness for your virtual team. With clearly defined roles for your team, you’ll quickly be able to identify the type of people you need and use that information to attract and hire the most qualified candidates.

You also have a higher chance of collaboration and sharing of information when people know exactly what is expected of them and of their teammates. Without the daily oversight on a virtual team, roles and responsibilities can easily overlap and redundancies can occur without anyone being the wiser, which can create confusion and frustration on a virtual team.

Why team members’ roles are important

You never want to hear a team member say, “I didn’t do it, because I thought it was Dan’s job.” That’s why going through some type of role clarification exercise at least yearly is important for your virtual team. Here are some steps to help you with role clarification:

1. List the two to three key deliverables or objectives each role produces for the team, the impact of those deliverables, and the resources required for their success.

For example, a team member may be responsible for creating and distributing monthly sales forecasts using data from your SalesForce Customer Relationship Management platform. This data impacts her sales team’s focus and efforts, and it also impacts the overall sales goals for the company.

2. Assess what’s missing and what you need.

Questions to ask include the following:

  • Are there any functional areas in which you’re lacking?
  • Are there important priorities that continually get put on the back burner or don’t get done because of a lack of resources?
  • When comparing your goals for the upcoming year with the skills on your team to achieve them, what gaps exist?
  • Are there objectives that are no longer important and relevant that would free up more time for a particular role?
  • Are team position descriptions accurate and a strong guide for what each job is responsible for?

3. Recalibrate current roles.

You may find some tasks should be reorganized based on a team member’s skill set.

4. Hire for new roles as needed.

After you’ve clearly defined the roles and responsibilities of each team member, you’ll have a clearer picture of team roles and responsibilities. This activity also helps you define the relationships between team members. Team members will know their key tasks and responsibilities as well as with whom they’re expected to work or collaborate.

Incorporate systems thinking to support how your team works together

Systems thinking is an understanding that any small change in how your team operates could significantly impact the rest of the organization. Teams that use systems thinking make it a habit to consider all the links, connections, and interactions between people and components that make up the system. The system can be your team, your company, or the entire industry you serve.

The importance of systems thinking for your team is that it helps to move you away from using a bandage approach to solving problems and making knee jerk reactions and decisions. With systems thinking, your team develops a theory as to why something is happening or what may happen and then engages in innovative thinking to discover different ways of changing the system to improve performance.

This systems-thinking approach can help virtual team members adopt a much more integrated and holistic view of their work. They spend thoughtful time analyzing, considering, and discussing the interconnectedness of tasks, processes, roles, practices, and decisions that need to work together for the whole system to function optimally. It keeps teams from deciding in a vacuum without considering the full impact to the rest of the system (human or nonhuman).

So, your virtual team may be at risk for a system failure. You’re probably asking yourself, “What the heck does that mean?” A system failure occurs when a team or team member fails to see the connections between people or processes needing to work together for success. Sometimes those failures can be traced back to confusing goals, lack of commitment, a flawed process, lack of feedback, or lack of collaboration on a team.

The key is to practice good team habits where systems thinking begins to just happen naturally. Here are some suggestions for doing so:

  • Implement rewards. Award the team or the group rather than individuals so that members focus on what everyone needs for success, not just what they need.
  • Set goals and priorities together. Agree on top priorities together and allow the chance for input and debate. Doing so provides an opportunity for team members to explain how others impact their priority or why their priority needs to happen first to support other goals.
  • Encourage virtual lunches. During these virtual lunches, team members showcase their work and how others’ roles and responsibilities make their work possible.
  • Commit to discussions after problems, issues, or mistakes. Support all team members in discussing their contribution and what they could do differently in the future.
  • Address team conflict early. Don’t let conflicts break down the system. Support team members in having virtual meetings where they discuss what they need from each other for success. Consider hiring a third-party coach to help them navigate the conflict effectively.
  • Ask great questions. This is the best way to help your team think more holistically and understand how any decisions made can impact others or where the root of the problem exists. Here are a few questions you can ask your team members the next time a problem arises:
    • What has been happening or what has happened?
    • Have we seen this happen before or something like it?
    • What are all the contributing factors as to why this is happening (for instance, people, processes, policies)? Why do you think that?
    • Are there any patterns that keep reoccurring?
    • What is the impact?
    • What about our thinking allows this situation to persist?
    • What assumptions are we making? Why?

The primary goal of using these questions is to expand the thinking of your team members so that they may notice where a small change or shift could have a significant impact. This shift could be around a communication approach, a policy, or a process.