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3 Elements of Virtual Team Planning

Executive Summary

The establishment of a virtual team brings a ton of potential to a business, but only if it’s set up correctly.

  • Setting up a virtual team is like planning a roadtrip. You don’t have to know every detail ahead of time, but you need to have checkpoints and alternative routes in mind.
  • The foundation of a successful virtual team is defining its purpose. Without it, virtual team members could end up worrying about their individual tasks and forgetting about the bigger picture.
  • To start your virtual team on the right foot, clarify the team’s destination, set the rules of the road, and conduct a test drive.

Let’s think of setting up a virtual team as taking a trip in your car along the virtual superhighway. How do you plan any trip? You need to clarify your destination, map your route, and follow the Rules of the Road. If it’s a new car, you might conduct a test-drive, but very quickly you’ll be speeding down the open lanes of the highway toward your destination.

As you drive, you are alert to the other drivers on the road, so you avoid sharp turns and accidents. You may have to get off the road for a time or navigate around roadblocks before continuing on. Along the journey, you might have to stop to tune up or perform maintenance on the car. And if your destination is far enough away, a refuel is required. Once you reach your destination, you slow down and park your vehicle safely. But your journey has just begun!

Driving the virtual highway can be a daunting journey if you do not prepare yourself and your team for what lies ahead. Although it is impossible to foresee every difficulty that may arise, good planning is essential to set the stage so that your fellow passengers can concentrate on necessary activities and avoid hazards.

Foundation of a Successful Virtual Team

Setup begins with determining and sharing the team’s purpose, since every virtual team is formed around a business purpose. Without a shared purpose, virtual team members could easily focus on local tasks and concerns while excluding joint efforts to achieve organizational objectives. Teams that work across boundaries turn the intangible thing we call “purpose” into doable actions. “Purpose” is actually a system of five interrelated ideas that build one upon the other: vision, mission, goals, tasks, and results.

Just as poor first impressions are hard to overcome, early missteps in setting up your virtual teams may lead to unintended (and undesired) consequences, such as distrust among members and poor communications that adversely affect getting deliverables out the door. Clearly, a key responsibility of the virtual leader is to properly set the stage for a newly formed virtual team.

Before virtual teams embark on their virtual journey, you (as the leader) must navigate through three key steps: (1) clarifying the team’s destination, (2) setting the Rules of the Road, and (3) conducting a test-drive.

Clarify the Team’s Destination

Just as you would make the final destination of your journey known to a group of passengers traveling in your car, you need to share the project’s goals with the entire virtual team before giving specific assignments or roles. Virtual teams carry an extra layer of complexity, of course, because team members are not sharing regular, in-person contact with one another. As a virtual leader, you must, above all, remain sensitive to the difficulty of developing a context of shared understanding. The leader is charged with making team introductions, and then defining and clarifying team goals, and most important, achieving a shared understanding of who is expected to do what to accomplish these goals.

For those situations in which you have the authority to select the team members, you will also be tasked with screening and hiring people. Once they are in place, you have to determine how each member will contribute to the “journey” and assign specific roles that are linked to the priorities outlined in the destination phase. Since a single manager can’t possibly oversee all activities even at close range, additional self-management becomes essential for virtual teams.

Set the Rules of the Road

Leaders of virtual teams must create appropriate norms so that disparate elements, from a variety of functions, can coordinate efforts and create deliverables. Every team has a set of rules (or norms), even if they are unspoken. This code enables a diverse population to work with reasonable assurance that critical safeguards are in place to ensure mutual understanding about the nuts-and-bolts processes that are necessary to create products and services. Imagine that you are defining specifications for a new part and require answers from locations A and B, where interlocking elements are manufactured, before you can proceed.

If providing input at a critical impasse is not a high priority for them to address quickly, your deadlines will not be met. Understandably, having clearly stated norms that allow team members to hold each other accountable is a “must-have” for virtual teams.

Once these basics are completed, the team must find its own way to become a cohesive unit and achieve these stated goals. Opportunities that traditional (on-site) teams have for face-to-face contact (at the water cooler, in the hallway, in the cafeteria) do not exist in the virtual world, so it is harder for members to establish common ground and develop a common identity. Without these opportunities, you need to find other ways to build team unity.

To counter a lack of comfort that we may have with other people of diverse backgrounds, cultures, and skills, it helps to create norms. Norms become central to the team’s workflow. They are a virtual team’s Rules of the Road, helping to guide team members’ interactions around, for example, (1) communications, (2) deadlines, (3) decision making, (4) conflict management, and (5) information sharing. The rules need not be complex; in fact, simple rules simply stated work best, because they avoid the potential for misunderstanding caused by differences in cultures and languages.

Each of these five interactions needs to be codified so that team members are free to focus on their responsibilities for team success. Setting these “rules” includes developing a Team Code, or a common language of specific phrases and acronyms used to standardize processes and procedures.

Conduct a Test-Drive

The last step in Team Setup is the virtual team’s test drive. This is the group of activities that a manager takes to assess team members’ capabilities and their ease (or lack of ease) with team communication. During this step, you engage in group and individual conversations with team members to gain a better understanding of each person’s personal and professional needs, wants, goals, and motives.

When quicker, smarter, and more flexible work groups are in demand, virtual teams are the answer. These highly adaptive work communities are able to extract appropriate resources from the organization and are well suited to twenty-first-century business operations driven by globalization and technology innovation.

Adapted with permission from A Manager’s Guide to Virtual Teams by Yael Zofi, copyright Yael Zofi.

Bring It Home

You may have no experience in building virtual teams, but that’s okay. It’s a matter of trial and error. If you get the foundation right, all of the other kinks will work themselves out along the way. Are you managing a virtual team? Describe your setup process in the comments! ~ HarperCollins Leadership Essentials

Yael Zofi

YAEL ZOFI is the founder and CEO of AIM Strategies(R), a human capital consulting firm. With over 20 years of global consulting experience, she has worked with clients such as AT&T, Chase, CIGNA, General Electric, MetLife, Pfizer, Philips, Viacom, and Nokia.

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