I’ve been working as part of a team since the early 1970’s when my older brother and I used to have to clean the kitchen together every night — trying to do so efficiently to meet Mom’s high expectations, but also without killing each other. Sadly, some nights we were more successful at achieving these goals than others.

As part of my job over the years, I’ve also worked in many teams, some long-term and some temporary, with outcomes ranging from exceptional to pathetic. With the advent of new technologies, however, and the increase in virtual teams in the workplace, I’ve realized that working virtually comes with a new set of challenges. In addition to using technology effectively, working virtually requires a different set of skills than working together face-to-face.

Two key challenges I have faced working virtually rather than face-to-face are (1) coming together as a cohesive group, and (2) staying motivated and accountable. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to take a class on virtual teams this spring and also to practice different techniques for working virtually with two other team members throughout this process. We paired a few face-to-face meetings with a number of virtual ones, and over the first few weeks of practicing our virtual team skills, we learned three key things:

  1. Importance of shared goals: Because we all came together with a shared goal—doing our very best work to succeed in learning skills for working virtually—the work we performed was easier to accomplish than teams I’ve worked with in the past where members were working with cross purposes and hidden agendas. I believe that establishing a purpose that all team members share is an essential first step to creating a high performing virtual team.
  2. Essential role of a leader: Even with a small group of only three members, our team decided to appoint a leader for each meeting, a role that rotated every week. This person set the agenda, led the meeting, and wrote-up the notes. We found that having this type of structure was essential, even with a small group. Too often I have worked on virtual teams where everyone provides input, but no one provides leadership. Having this role set for each team meeting provided a valuable sense of accountability for all team members.
  3. Learning to trust by establishing group norms: Finally, I have found in my past team experiences that learning to trust the others is essential to allowing everyone to work efficiently, and trust is particularly important when working virtually. In order to establish trust for our virtual team, we began by putting together a team charter that outlined our work boundaries and operating norms. This was a detailed document with information about each team member’s schedule, working style, and skills. We also established norms for when and how we would meet, how we would share and edit documents, and how to provide feedback.

At first, this process seemed tedious and unnecessary; however, after only a few days of working together I learned how valuable this team charter was in establishing trust. In the past, I have found it difficult to rely on others with whom I have no relationship or track record. For example, I wonder if their work will be up to certain standards, or whether they will meet deadlines and communicate effectively. The norms and team standards that we put in place greatly alleviated this fear for me. Plus, since each team member performed exactly as we had discussed, we found working together to be productive and enjoyable, especially because I learned to trust my teammates much faster than in the past.

In conclusion, establishing an efficient, high functioning virtual team requires shared goals, clear leadership, and trust.

Note: An in-depth resource that provides more information about working virtually is The Handbook of High Performance Virtual Teams: A Toolkit for Collaborating Across Boundaries, by Nemiro, Beyerlein, Bradley and Beyerlein, 2008.