Building your virtual team

Globalization has changed the nature of how businesses function. What it has not changed are the requirements for success. A dedicated team of skilled employees guided by expert managers is crucial to any corporation. Communication is paramount, more so today than ever before.

Pulling together a seamless business team on-site is a challenge in itself. Trying to rally employees from distant locales can be daunting, at best. A successful ‘virtual team’ can bridge the distance, but with any team – virtual or traditional – communication is the key to productivity.

Fostering collaboration

According to Dr. Tom Allen, author of “Managing the Flow of Technology”, people are not likely to communicate or collaborate very often if they are more than 50 feet apart. How then, do we foster communication and collaboration when people are geographically dispersed?

As a professional corporate trainer who has coached over 1,000 project managers across North America, I have found that the most effective starting point when it comes to opening the lines of communication is to create a team operating agreement (TOA).

A TOA guides the team’s actions and interactions. It is the set of behavioral norms that the team agrees to abide by. These norms can be formal or informal. If a team does not deliberately create them, they will develop on their own, which may be problematic. Geographic, ethnic and cultural differences impact on the effectiveness of how individuals and teams operate. Awareness of these differences is vital if communication is to be clear, honest and properly directed.

A TOA can be as inclusive as a team chooses it to be. The more inclusive it is, the less chance for miscommunication, conflict and lost opportunities. Ideally, the TOA should be created at the beginning of a project or when a new team forms.

A TOA may include the following categories:

Meeting Protocols

– Meetings begin and end on time

– We attempt to schedule meetings to accommodate people in different time zones

– We take into consideration holidays of the different cultures

– We respect and listen to what other people are saying on the call and we don’t hold sidebar conversations

– One week notice will be given to the team if a member is unable to attend


– We check e-mails twice a day

– We call into the office once a day

– We handle conflict directly with the person concerned and work to resolve it o We identify and communicate possible conflicts clearly and immediately

– We give feedback in a timely manner, respecting cultural sensitivities

– We value confidentiality

How can these objectives be realized? Use the following steps to implement a TOA on your virtual team: Brainstorm: have each team member list what they would like to see become part of the TOA. List each team member’s ideas on a flip chart. Clarify – ensure team members thoroughly understand each statement; encourage questions. Discuss – modify any statement, remove it, or live with it; make sure you have buy-in from the entire team before moving ahead. Adopt what has been tabled as the “official” TOA; laminate it and display in the meeting room.

It is critical to note that the TOA is not a stagnant document; it can, and probably should, be modified during the course of a project.

Virtual teams are the way of the future, but they use many of the features of successful business units of yesterday and today. By proactively establishing behavioral norms for your virtual teams, you will go a long way towards ensuring their success.

Claire Sookman specializes in ‘virtual team’ building, helping project managers who work remotely to collaborate more effectively to increase productively and efficiency. She can be reached at [email protected]

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