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Collaborating to Win as a Virtual Team
by Susan Schwartz


As the global work force evolves – managers are finding worker isolation to be one of the greatest challenges in today’s virtual work place. The 21st century corporation is significantly different than it was 20 years ago. Centralized offices have dispersed and the office coffee pot is no longer the center of informal knowledge transfer and office gossip.

How can managers in today’s cross-functional matrix reporting structures extend organizational links to increase knowledge sharing opportunities and minimize workgroup isolation? The technology is available – how do we get people to adapt their work styles to communicate across time and distance?

The first hurdle is to review informal messages that leadership transmits. An organization may publish globalization as a corporate value and cornerstone for growth; however are these values and goals reflected by actual collaboration practices? Does your organization leadership consider remote staff as vital members of the working team?

If the answer is yes, let’s take a look at how team leaders and managers can empower remotely located teams and become successful collaborative communities. Three foundation traits assure virtual team success. The first step in expanding beyond a physically co-located team is to make a list of the competitive advantages that are brought to the virtual table. These benefits can include unique skill sets, funding appropriations, or political support. Know your team strengths.

Diverse Perspectives Team Strengths
Flexible Communications

One of the strongest strategic advantages that cross-cultural and cross-functional teams provide is a diversity of perspective. People who learn how to take a fresh look at an old problem are most likely to develop innovative solutions. So how do we brainstorm if we aren’t in the same room?

Lastly, communicate. It is all too easy to place yourself in the center of a singular universe. Check in with your colleagues. Share your activities. Ask questions. Request help and offer to help others. The best way to become a part of a team is to be part of a team. Take a break and share a virtual cup of coffee with a colleague and open those informal lines of communication.

Implementing Collaborative Tools

Virtual communication technologies range from simple telephone conference calls and email broadcasts to a variety of asynchronous and synchronous collaborative tools that include discussion threads, web-based conference calls, and collaborative groupware.

The foundation for successful collaboration of any kind is to establish a focused agenda and participation protocols. People need to know the game plan as well as the rules. Traditional in-person brainstorm sessions often default to a single continuous session filled with random thoughts. Not everyone thinks clearly under pressure. The value of virtual activities is the series of interactions that enable people to think ideas through and across. Combining independent preparation with ‘group think’ activities to create a series of thoughtful interactions can truly shorten traditional timeframes for planning and implementation.

The following table offers some hints for when and how to use a variety of collaborative tools to achieve the most effective results.

The challenge when planning and implementing communication vehicles is to maintain focus on the people who will use these tools. Recently, I heard someone describe successful collaboration as a 20/80 split between technical and people components. Successful virtual endeavors happen because of the high quality efforts of the people involved. Not because of a single individual. Not because of purchased technology as means to an end. Virtual teams succeed because the team members are encouraged to share their local perspectives as part of the global solution. One size doesn’t necessarily fit all situations. Strong virtual teams are adept at looking for the commonalities and leveraging them as part of the solution.

The preceding table identifies several collaborative technologies that encourage communications. These four were chosen for the relatively low start up costs and flexible access. Collaborative groupware tools such as Lotus Notes and The Groove that enable remote teams to share files and create common “discussion” workspaces are very powerful. However, these relatively sophisticated tools are only as valuable as the information conveyed. People must use the technology in order to derive value and return on investment.

Corporate recognition of the value of knowledge sharing is the key to successful collaborative technology implementations. Systems designed to provide easy access and reinforce the value of the information contributed will be used and referenced as an essential corporate information tool.

Managing a virtual work team is not so different from managing a co-located team. Knowing the strengths of your team members enables you to organize the workload to achieve time efficiencies as well as provide cross-training opportunities. Leveraging team members’ variety of experience enables you to explore a broad range of solutions. And, communicating effectively enables the team to focus on their individual efforts while understanding the impact on the total team goal.

Once an organization steps forward to support dispersed work teams, they very quickly discover the efficiencies that come from the requirements to clearly define the project goals, delegate the tasks, and monitor the progress.

  When technology is installed with limited value recognition by corporate leadership, it will lay dormant and unused as proven by an international engineering firm that created an intranet site for engineers to ask questions and share information for a variety of disciplines. Most of the knowledge areas had little, if any, input for six months. Just because you build it, does not mean people will come. Although easy to use, the company did not market the launch, did not recognize the value of knowledge sharing, and did not communicate a plan on the action to be taken to evaluate, archive or integrate essential knowledge into the general corporate information structure. The engineers prioritized their limited time for other activities since the company did not recognize the value of the engineers’ time for knowledge sharing endeavors.

Productivity metrics are easier to measure. Trouble spots are more difficult to hide and thus, get resolved earlier. No, virtual teams cannot physically yell over a cubicle, but they can still share informal knowledge using a variety of voice and data technologies. And from experience, office gossip travels just as quickly over a data connection as it does from cube-to-cube.


The Author


Susan Schwartz works with global companies to design and launch on-line collaborative communities and next generation learning solutions. She is the founder and principal consultant of The River Birch Group, a performance improvement consultancy that provides a broad range of services including role-based job task analyses, certification/assessment programs, mentoring/coaching, and curriculum design. Susan’s passion is helping companies learn how to drink from virtual water coolers. Susan can be contacted by writing her at, or visit her web site .

Many more articles in High Performance Teams in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2002 by Susan Schwartz. All rights reserved.

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