How to Organize Your Virtual Team

By Tara Powers

Choosing a structure for your team is vital. It outlines the way people relate to one another, how your team is organized, how roles are assigned, and how people communicate and make decisions.

Selecting a team structure involves a variety of frameworks that are flexible to shift and change in order to support changing team goals and priorities. Basically, your team structure is the glue that holds everything together and helps your team grow. The following sections help guide you in creating the optimal team structure for your virtual team.

Virtual team structure

Teams can be structured in several ways, and the way a team is structured usually depends on company culture, goals of the team, roles and responsibilities, and the way team members interact and communicate. Some structures are more rigid than others, and with a virtual team, it’s important that your structure is flexible to allow for much more self-directed work. Here are the most common team structures:

  • Hierarchical: This is the old-school team structure where a clear chain of command exists from the leader down to the front-line employee. Decisions are made at the top and passed down to the bottom of the structure. Team members at the bottom of the structure don’t have authority to make decisions on their own, and this type of structure is slow to make changes and adapt to quickly shifting market conditions. The military and some traditional companies still use this structure.
  • Matrix: Most large companies today like Starbucks, Apple, and even Wal-Mart have moved to a matrix structure to be more adaptable to market needs. In a matrix structure, people report to different managers or teams for different reasons. It may have some level of a hierarchical structure for reporting purposes and performance management, but it allows for more flexibility on a daily basis to get the work done. For example, an accountant may report into the CFO for performance purposes but she also reports to the project team manager for specific projects that the accountant supports, which allows for faster communication and decision-making.
  • Flat: A flat structure removes any hierarchy and spreads out decision-making and responsibility. Teams are self-managed, and employees have freedom to decide how to get their work done and when. Communication is faster and direct.
  • Holacracy: This is the newest organizational structure made famous by Zappos. In a holacracy, responsibility is distributed among groups called circles. The circles make their own decisions about what gets done without reporting up any chain of command. Employees can have different roles in different circles based on their skill set and what a particular project needs.

Your team structure should support your team goals and how you want communication to flow on your team. On a virtual team, I most often see a combination of a flat or matrix structure for getting work done and a hierarchy structure for reporting purposes. The key to success is that everyone on the team is clear of the structure being used and the leader is flexible, adaptable, and willing to shift gears if things aren’t working.

The importance of virtual team frameworks

Team frameworks are used for things like product development, communication, high performance, decision-making, feedback, coaching, team building, and more. Team frameworks are extremely common, and a leader usually recommends them based on positive past experiences. Many frameworks presented in popular leadership books are researched and proven to work, all with the same goal: to assist your team in building trust and efficiency and accomplishing results.