Starting up a Virtual Team

by Stu Noble, M.Ed.
Starting up a Virtual Team

A global New Product Development Team was launched by a major software development company with an aggressive completion date as well as specific performance expectations driven by the market. Though it took the team several months to effectively share ideas, information, and know-how, its work was pretty much on track for the targeted delivery date.

As team members began to feel more confident and their work together accelerated, a key senior manager who was not previously involved with the process, began adding new expectations and challenged the established set of priorities. The team’s work came to a sudden halt, morale dropped and expectations for success withered. Because they were scattered globally, the team members’ inability to meet face-to-face at this critical time to work through the changes added to their frustration.

A NASA team collecting information from ten different locations to create a leadership model, developed a website for the its data to be collected. As team members from all ten locations gathered the data, it was stored in the common database, which automatically identified its source, integrated it with existing information, and stored and updated the compiled information.

Team members estimated that using this technology saved them several weeks of information processing and analysis time, as well as at least one cross-country trip for six or eight team members.

(Source: Duarte & Snyder, 1999)

A virtual team is one whose members share a common purpose, but are separated by distance, time, and organizational boundaries. In such a team, members are linked only by communication technologies.

For example, a software development team may have members in the United States, India, Taiwan, and Brazil, and their only communication may be through the Internet, telephone, and video conferencing technologies.

As such, virtual team members face unique challenges at every stage of their development and performance cycle. Yet, as with conventional teams, there is no greater opportunity for building an effective virtual team than at its start up. Like a thoroughbred running in a horse race, the difference between success and failure is often determined by how they come “out of the chute.” This article will highlight several recommended approaches for building a strong foundation for a newly created virtual team. Included are:

  • Establishing a Well Understood Purpose (Mission, goals, tasks, results)
  • Clarifying Stakeholder Expectations
  • Understanding Team Membership
  • Clear and Complimentary of Roles and Responsibilities
  • Building Rapport and Relationships
  • Instituting Communication Practices and Protocols

More so than conventional teams, virtual teams need to be more proactive, deliberate, explicit, and disciplined in addressing these areas.

Establishing a Well-Understood Purpose

“You must look at purpose. Only when you have that right can you
get from here to there”. Will Hutsell, Corporate Quality, Eastman

It is often said “If you don’t know where you’re going, you can’t expect to get there.” This is a key factor for all teams, virtual or otherwise. Yet, because of the complexity of working together through time, distance, and organizational boundaries, it is especially critical for building the effective virtual team.

Lipnack and Stamps express this clearly in their landmark book, Virtual Teams: Reaching Across Space, Time, and Organizations with Technology.

“The best predictor of a virtual team’s success is in the clarity of its purpose and the participatory processes by which the group achieves it.” (p.57)

The task of developing a team’s charter is overlaid and affected by an equally important set of tasks having to do with ensuring [members] ‘buy in’, participation and support. (Duarte and Snyder, 94)

Clarifying purpose is more than communicating information about the team’s initial charter. Virtual team members should be involved in a dialogue that assures their individual and collective clarity of how the successful performance of their team will be defined and how their individual efforts contribute to that end.

There is no substitute for this in launching a virtual team.

Team Purpose Clarification: Team members reach a common understanding of their purpose, tasks and expected results.

The team’s charter and stakeholder (others who have interest in or direct connection to the team’s work) input is shared with team members. (Members are encouraged to speak directly with stakeholders if possible)

Each team member documents his or her understanding of the purpose, its importance to the business, and their expected individual contribution

These descriptions are circulated throughout the team.

A team meeting is convened (either face-to-face or virtually) to discuss common elements, themes, as well as differences. A team version of the purpose (including mission, goals, tasks and expected results) is created.

This information is circulated for review and feedback from the team’s sponsor and/or stakeholders.

Clarifying Stakeholder Expectations

“In retrospect, we realized we had a formula for success. Senior management involvement plus cross functional teams plus team commitment to the process plus stakeholder ‘buy in’ equals success.”
Bill Crowley, SunTeam Leader, Sun Microsystems

Often virtual teams have multiple sponsors and/or stakeholders with a variety of needs and expectations. Understanding stakeholder needs contributes to assuring a clarity of purpose, as well as initiating the ‘buy in’ and support that may be critical later on in the team’s process. Clarifying these needs and expectations at the onset of the project can also avoid potential team disablers…confusion, misdirected work and conflicts. This also helps team members understand the resources and know-how needed to support success.

Strategy: Clarify and assure a common understanding of stakeholder expectations.

Approach: Stakeholder Questionnaires and Feedback Summary

Each stakeholder or stakeholder group is sent a brief questionnaire (email preferred) to complete. Sample questions include:

  • What is the purpose or mission of the team?
  • What outcome is needed and/or expected from the team’s performance?
  • When should the team’s work be completed? Milestones?
  • To whom does the team report and how often?
  • What resources are provided to support the team in its work?

The responses to these questionnaires are compiled and summarized for the team to review. Stakeholders receive feedback as well.

The Stakeholder Summary is stored in the team’s archive for future review and reference.

The responses to these questionnaires are compiled and summarized for the team to review. Stakeholders receive feedback as well.

The Stakeholder Summary is stored in the team’s archive for future review and reference.

Understanding Team Membership

“Who’s on first…What’s on second…” Abbott & Costello

All teams function better when its members possess the complementary skills, knowledge and experience to accomplish their task. Many virtual teams, however, are formed without full understanding of the capabilities of its members. Effectively addressing this aspect at the beginning of the team’s work will be invaluable as the team progresses.

Most virtual teams have at least three types of team members: core, extended and ancillary. It is important to identify those who will be fully accountable for the results (the core team) first, as well as recognize the value of adding know how to the team as appropriate (extended and ancillary). (Duarte and Snyder, 1999)

Strategy: Full understanding of the capabilities of individual team members, as well as skill, abilities, know-how, strengths and weaknesses. This can enable the team to maximize its own performance potential, as well as know when to seek additional team members (extended, ancillary) or support as required.

Approach: Team Skill, Ability, and Experience Inventory

A team template is created to capture background information for each member. This is stored at a central location or circulated via email.

All or part of a team meeting is dedicated to reviewing the composite information and discussing perceptions, reactions, etc. Strengths and weaknesses are identified and initial planning for maximizing performance potential is done.

The composite information then becomes a ‘living’ database of the Team’s Profile and is used for continual reference during the team’s work.

Clarity of Roles and Responsibilities

“Successful virtual team members understand the importance of balancing coordination and collaboration with autonomy. Maintaining this balance is not easy.” Duarte and Snyder

A big part of addressing this need is the clarity of understanding each team member’s know-how, as well as his or her specific roles and responsibilities on the team. Obviously related is the need to assure that the team is positioned to maximize the utilization of its resources to produce results.

The need for role clarification for all team members is well researched. However, because of the lack of frequent personal contact, this need is even greater for virtual teams.

Strategy: Clarify individual roles and responsibilities of virtual team members.

A common understanding of both individual and shared roles and responsibilities is developed to maximize team performance. Modifications that are made over time are documented, distributed and discussed, as appropriate.

Approach: A document is developed by the team’s sponsor, manager, or leader that outlines the roles and responsibilities of individual team members. (An option would be for individual team members to document their own perceptions and exchange these with the leaders and each other.)

A common understanding is reached with each individual before sharing with the team at-large. This includes shared leadership expectations.

Each team member then reviews the complimentary roles and responsibilities and provides feedback to the team leader, sponsor, etc. Adjustments are discussed to assure that the team, as a whole, is organized to maximize performance results.

A directory is created for easy reference by those inside and outside the team.

A second recommended approach is a Relationship Map, which includes all core team members, extended and ancillary membership, resources, stakeholders, and sponsors.

Building Rapport and Relationships

“Relationships among members are the bonds that enable virtual teams to do their work across boundaries.” Lipnack and Stamps

Virtual teams are at a significant disadvantage, because they lack the regular, face-to-face social contact that can be so helpful to accelerate team development and relationship building. This is much more than a “feel good” issue, because quality relationships support the trust building that remains a cornerstone of effective team performance.

Strategy: A virtual team exercise to support relationship building among team members.

Approach: This exercise is designed to help team members become better acquainted on a personal level.

A virtual team meeting is arranged and facilitated by either the team leader or outside facilitator.

Each team member is asked to bring to the meeting an emoticon or symbol that personally represents him or her in some way.

The images are arranged in a circle and made visible to participants on a screen with team-wide access.

Participants are asked to share, in clockwise order, why they chose their images and what it reflects about them. Similarities and differences are shared.

These symbols are then used as part of the normal communications exchange for team members.

Team members are encouraged to build one-to-one relationships via phone calls and/or emails with each other on an ongoing basis. (This simulates talking at the water cooler or on a coffee break.)

Communication Practices and Protocols

“It’s 90% culture change and 10% technology.” Bob Buckman, CEO, Buckman Labs

Communication is the lifeblood of any virtual team. While the use of technology is critical to team communication, technology alone represents only the tip of the communication challenge iceberg.

In order to maximize team effectiveness, a great deal of attention must be paid to the use of technologies, how the team communicates, guidelines for assuring information is adequately shared (and understood) and so forth. Building a culture of familiarity, relationships and trust is, again, key to enhancing the quality of communication.

Strategy: Make decisions, as early in its life as possible, about how it will address its communication needs.

Approach: Use of a Communications Effectiveness Checklist

The below checklist can be used by virtual teams to address their communication needs. You will note the emphasis on the process of communication, along with the technical tools enabling it.

  • Do we have agreement on our team ground rules?
  • Do we have agreement on our team ground rules?
  • Turn around time on emails, phone calls, etc.
  • How we share information
  • Willingness (and method) to give & receive direct feedback
  • How we make decisions
  • How will we effectively use media?
  • Conference Calls (Whole and/or part of team)
  • Email
  • A meeting/interaction platform (i.e., NetMeeting, others)
  • Document/Information Sharing/Knowledge Management
  • Face-to-face Opportunities (Whole and/or part of team)
  • Other tools?
  • How will this team handle disagreements and/or conflict?
  • How will we remain connected to our stakeholders or customers?


As with conventional teams, there are no easy answers or foolproof ways to launch a virtual team. However, devoting adequate time and attention to the building blocks that support a virtual team’s successful performance can prove an invaluable up-front investment.

Without addressing these conditions for a successful start up, maximizing performance results may be virtually impossible.

Article References:

Kimball, Lisa, Noble, Stu and Kennedy, Jon, Virtual Team Tool Kit, Group Jazz Publishing, 2002.

Lipnack, Jessica and Stamps, Jeffrey, Virtual Teams: Reaching Across Space, Time and Organizations with Technology, John Wiley & Sons, 1997.

Duarte, Deborah and Snyder, Nancy, Mastering Virtual Teams, Jossey-Bass, Inc., 2000.

Jude-York, Deborah, Davis, Lauren, Wise, Susan, Virtual Teaming: Breaking the Boundaries of Time and Place, Crisp Publications, 2000.

Henry, Jane and Hartzler, Meg, Tools for Virtual Teams, ASQ Quality Press, 1998.