Virtual teams are a fact of life for most companies. Better communications mean it is easier to stay in touch, even if your high-performance team is located thousands of miles away or is spread over several countries and time zones.

Most teams today are dispersed to some degree. Some may be on another floor or in another building. But in many cases, the degree of separation is quite distant, like on another continent.

Virtual teams have been with us for decades, but thanks to the recent economic crisis, their growth has accelerated. The reasons are persuasive and are practically all cost-related, but studies have shown that virtual teams are more engaged and collaboration between team members is strong. Here are some of the reasons companies are opting for virtual teams:

  • Lower travel costs

  • Lower organizational costs

  • Associated business costs savings

  • Savings on real estate

  • No relocation costs

It’s all very well to save money, but your virtual team must be successful and deliver projects on time and on budget, just like your other teams. They may operate in different circumstances, but your expectations are no less demanding:

  • You want them to be self-motivated and work independently

  • They must be results oriented

  • Possess good communications skills

  • Trust is critical to everything

  • They must follow clear rules and protocols

  “When you form a team, why do you try to form a team? Because teamwork builds trust and trust builds speed.” – Russel Honore

That’s all very well, but there are factors to consider with every virtual team that need to be resolved:

  • Different kind of decision-making process required.

  • Lack of face-to-face meetings means you can’t read body language. It’s one of those things you take for granted, but with virtual teams you can easily miss the warning signs that someone is disengaged or distracted.

  • Feelings of isolation permeate the team leading to loss of focus.

  • Loss of team interaction.

  • Team deprived of nonverbal cues, such as you get with daily interaction in non-virtual teams.

With virtual teams, this is crucial. Build relationships with key virtual leaders who manage day-to-day business within their own environment and you can save yourself a lot of grief. They, in turn, will communicate with team members and ensure your project is a winner.

Getting buy-in from virtual team members takes significant personal investment, but it’s time worth spending. Staying in touch strengthens the process and motivates the team. Sometimes, it is advisable for team members, who may not have met before, to get to know one another before a face-to-face meeting with the team is called, which aids in the collaborative process.

Project managers need to understand social, organizational, and occupational cultures. Where there are cross-cultural team members, it is imperative that communications take this into consideration.

An expression or order which works well with one culture (in the Philippines, for example) may not work with another (Japan) – indeed it might offend them – so, it is crucial to be cognizant of this. 

If your team is spread across several countries, then the risks are higher. Get the tone and language right and you’ll have a happier team.

Reach out, stay engaged, and be available. Sounds simple, yet it’s worth repeating. Use all the communication tools at your disposal, from video conferencing links to email, etc. It shows you are not only fully engaged, but also that, if anything goes wrong, you are there to help. It also helps if the team leader is as passionate as you are.

Clarity is also important. We talked earlier about the inability to detect body language or facial expressions, so be crystal clear in your body language in any video communication about what you wish to convey so that there is no room for doubt. no

It’s a good idea for virtual team members to build personal relationships with one another. Some companies go to great lengths to recreate normal interpersonal moments, such as meeting at a virtual ‘water-cooler’ or greeting each other in the morning via Skype. But using a ‘chat’ option, like Teamwork Chat, can help build a rapport and team spirit.  

Virtual teams are here to stay, but being aware of potential problems will help smoothen your path to building an excellent collaborative virtual team.   Remember: “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships” – Michael Jordan