Making virtual teams work

As the war for talent rages on, the use of virtual teams continues to grow as companies look well beyond the 30-minute commute to find the right people with the right stuff. Companies who limit their sights to local workers are missing the vast majority of the labor pool. Winning organizations are reaching well beyond their city, state, and even country borders to find the best of the best so they can deliver high-performance results.

That said, virtual teams are not business as usual in most companies. One needs to consider different types of configurations, what projects can be tackled, and the mechanics of how a virtual team works to be successful with this approach. A virtual team needs to be carefully designed and managed to avoid disappointment, failure and missed opportunities.

Over the last several weeks, I have interviewed over a dozen experts in communications, project management, organizational development, and talent about the ins and outs of virtual teams. Below are some of the key takeaways from those conversations. For my entire interviews with these experts, follow the link at the end of this article.

Zero in on your goals and measurements

Like any team, virtual teams need a clear purpose and set of objectives. They need to know what their mission is, who they are serving, what they are expected to deliver, and what value they are generating for their client. Outline this clearly and reference it often in the early stages. Allow time for discussion and provide clarifications where necessary.

More so than physically co-located teams, virtual teams need well-defined measurement criteria and reporting. Since there are less opportunities to collectively “see” the results, there needs to be more frequent and more visual reporting of the status and progress toward goals. Develop a handful of leading KPI that will show the team how they are doing as a unit, not just as individuals. Have it distributed daily, and discuss it at least weekly.

Virtual team-building takes more time and more intention

A large part of team-building is developing one-on-one relationships with your team members. This happens naturally with in-person teams. With virtual teams, this is extremely difficult to do without a clear game plan. If possible, get your team together in-person in the beginning stages, and spend time together outside of work too. If your team can’t make the trek, make sure to do plenty of all-hands video chats. Start sessions with ice-breakers, like asking everyone to share personal details about their interests and non-work lives. It’s equally effective to pair people up on early tasks, working together over the phone or video.

Be deliberate with your communications

Even when communicating over video, a lot of non-verbal interaction is lost  ̶­  it’s far worse over the phone and email. The subtle cues of facial expressions, hand gestures, and posture are missed. Encourage everyone to use a deliberate “round-trip” protocol  ̶­  meaning once you say something, the other person repeats what they heard, then you confirm that it was indeed what you meant, and vice-versa. On conference and video calls, check in with everyone regularly to make sure they are engaged and being heard. And don’t forget the emotional factor; virtual teams need to be better at expressing their emotional states and reactions clearly. Be explicit and intentional when you speak and write to avoid being misunderstood.

Set clear ground rules early on

As a team and organizational coach, one of the first things I ask my clients about is their ground rules around how the team has agreed to operate. Ground rules can be as simple as turning off cell phones during meetings, and as sophisticated as formal agenda templates and protocols for running meetings. The important thing is that the team agrees to a set of rules that allow them to work efficiently and effectively. A good team collectively enforces the rules, without shaming the rule-breakers. They regularly review their ground rules, changing existing ones and experiment with new ones.

Virtual teams need to create ground rules that help facilitate communications in their unique circumstances. For example, some virtual teams set rules around meeting times (i.e. “only meet in the morning” or “never meet on Fridays”). The point is to codify the agreements the team has made and to lock in good practices as new ground rules. Take the time to start this list of rules when the team forms, and then review them with each retrospective.

Retrospect, retrospect again, then retrospect some more

Finally, one of the best practices any virtual team can do is to hold retrospectives routinely. This can be anything from a two minute chat about how to make your meetings more effective, to scheduled retrospectives at the end of each working sprint or iteration, to day-long retrospectives each quarter to address deeper issues as a collective group. As with any retrospective, make sure you take the time to first gather data, then develop insight, then determine possible actions. Finish with a clear review of what the team has committed to and record who will be doing what and by when.

With more and more work becoming project-based, and more of us tapping into the global talent pool, the use of virtual teams will soon become the norm rather than the exception. Getting ahead of the curve will separate the leaders from the pack in the coming years.

If you would like to listen to my interviews with experts on virtual teams, sign up for the summit using the link below! There you can also find downloadable audio files and transcripts available at a discounted early-bird price.

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Bruce Eckfeldt is highly-focused, results-based performance coach. Previously an entrepreneur and a former Inc 500 CEO he now focuses on advising startups and high-growth companies on leadership and management. He is a long-time member of the New York City Chapter of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization and a mentor for the EO Accelerators, ERA, and SBS programs. You can reach him or visit his website at