As every HR professional knows, building build trust and cohesion in any team is a challenge. In a virtual team, however, the absence of physical connection means that the challenge can be much greater. While many elements of managing a virtual team are like managing face-to-face, some of the pitfalls that can derail a ‘regular’ team – notably communication issues and cultural differences – are significantly amplified if there’s no chance of members meeting in one physical location.

So its important to realise that effective virtual teamwork isn’t something that just happens by itself and the onus is on organisations to purposefully create the right conditions for it to thrive.

For example, just as some managers just can’t adapt to working in with virtual teams, HR professionals need to be aware that not everyone is a suitable candidate to be a member of one. It requires more than just technical skills: adaptability, emotional and cultural intelligence are also important.

For the team leader, the ability to make effective use of the communication tools available to connect and collaborate is an absolute pre-requisite. However, the key point about these tools is that they are just that – tools.

Making sure these tools are used properly (or used at all) is the job of every team member and so, ultimately, the responsibility of the team leader. Ineffective communication in a virtual team is a management issue, not an IT problem!

It is the manager’s role, too, to navigate through the differing ‘rules’ for workplace interaction. Take knowledge-sharing, for example. In some cultures, this isn’t something that comes naturally, yet for a virtual team, it is an absolute necessity. Leaders need to put in place effective mechanisms for sharing knowledge and communicate their successful experiences with others in the organisation.

Similarly, in a remote team, clarity and consistency about the direction and goals of the group aren’t just “nice-to-have”, they are fundamental to success. That means a leader who consistently communicates a clear vision and helps others to accomplish it.

Accountability – ensuring that team members deliver on their commitments to the projects and to each other – is another critical element. After all, one of the hallmarks of any effective team is that its members do what they say will do. For the manager, that means making sure every team member knows what the deliverables are for everyone else. If a manager is spending his or her time resolving disputes or managing peoples’ expectations of each other, the chances are that accountability will suffer.

Ultimately, the leader of a virtual team needs to be proactive rather than waiting for problems to arise before trying to fix them. In teams that are culturally as well as geographically diverse, that means that the leader may need to balance different communications styles to avoid situations where Europeans and North Americans – well-used to voicing their opinions and speaking out – will tend to dominate discussions while Asians and Latin Americans remain quiet.

So while it’s the leader’s job to alert team members to these differences, it may well be that HR departments also need to offer training for individual members, be it from more experienced virtual team members or from an external coach, to ensure the success of their virtual team initiatives.

How can HR help virtual teambuilding?

  • Participate in the selection process of virtual team leaders and members. HR can provide skills assessments to ensure that individuals assigned to virtual teams have strong team skills and are excellent communicators
  • Work with IT to ensure that the technologies virtual teams will need are in place before the team is due to begin working. Additionally, HR can help facilitate knowledge sharing between team members (and across the company) by ensuring that there is an electronic repository available for individuals to share their personal experiences.
  • Training is probably the most important contribution HR can make to virtual team success. Relevant topics might include:

o Team building sessions to develop objectives and clarify roles
o Etiquette and meeting management for virtual teams
o Virtual team leadership
o Information systems usage
o Coaching and mentoring virtual team members
o Managing the performance of virtual team members
o Cultural awareness

The Author

Dr Suzanne Edinger is Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour at Nottingham University Business School