Draw Lines in the Sand to Jumpstart Virtual Team

Virtual teams are hard to see. That’s why the boundaries that define the scope, accountabilities, roles, reporting relationships, tasks and deliverables can be pretty tough to grasp. That is, if they exist at all.

Why? Some teams simply assume that everyone has a shared understanding of the big picture. If that’s true, the thinking goes, then no need to waste time discussing something that goes without saying. Other teams may actually prefer blurry boundaries, thinking that they may feel more unified if members aren’t “put in boxes.” And some teams just prefer to address any prevailing confusion or conflicts as they inevitably arise. No use having these “touchy-feely” conversations unless they’re really necessary, right? There’s so much work to do and so little time!

While any of these perspectives may seem rational at any given time, the consequences can be nothing short of catastrophic. What’s most likely to happen when a hard-charging virtual team moves along, often at breakneck speed, without clear boundaries? Will team members just magically mesh, somehow sensing what each needs to do, forging needed connections and making smooth handoffs by osmosis? Will people somehow know when it’s time to jump in to give a colleague vital information or assistance so everyone’s jobs can get done faster? Almost definitely not!

Here we explore some of the usual challenges virtual teams face when it comes to carving out clear boundaries, the challenges that emerge in the absence of such boundaries, and some possible remedies. You can also jumpstart the creation of your own virtual team charter with this downloadable checklist of questions.

  • Project charters and team charters fulfill distinctly different needs. The Project Management Institute (PMI) defines a project charter fairly narrowly around the business case, authority, and other macro issues. Team operations, the internal setup of how the members will get their work done, is conspicuously absent from the project charter. A team charter (which some call bylaws or some other name), serves as a blueprint for a team, helping members see how they fit together, make decisions, signal the need for support, and share knowledge and processes. A blueprint is just as necessary for assembling a team as it is for constructing any building.
  • Use organizational clarity to get beyond hearsay and “he said, she said.” Some teams are reluctant to be transparent about their structure. For example, a former peer may have been quietly promoted by a manager who doesn’t want to make waves. In a virtual world, changes like this often fly under the radar for a time. But when word leaks out (and it will!), the element of surprise is likely to cause confusion and resentment. The team’s leader will lose credibility and the team will bear high costs in terms of decreased productivity and low morale.  Team leaders need to be thoughtful, clear and timely when it comes to communicating changes, along with the associated rationale, especially when they affect many others on the team. Especially reach out to those most likely to have questions or concerns, genuinely seeking out their perspectives.
  • Use your team charter to create your own unique rhythms of process and collaboration. A team charter needs to answer certain elementary questions up front. What do people do, and what do they need to do it? How do we define success? What processes enable good teamwork? How do we capture and share principles? How do we allow for sensible change at various stages? Will we need to modify our roles and responsibilities as we move into different project phases? How will we collaborate from a distance? Invite team members to articulate the list of questions for which it is most important to create responses, together. Teams that answer these questions right up front are far more likely to make meaningful progress, more quickly, than teams that try to figure out the answers as they go along. Click here for a more complete list of questions.
  • Teams need to agree on the behavioral norms that are important to achieving shared goals. Without benefit of explicit shared norms around roles, processes and communication, friction and confusion bubble up quickly. When this happens, there are no easy or quick remedies for virtual teams, since members have few windows of opportunity for real-time conversations. For example, I might have a collegial, informal relationship with my client sponsor from Germany when we work alongside each other in the U.S. However, if we haven’t discussed acceptable conversational norms when in his home office, I may inadvertently embarrass both of us if I speak to him in my usual casual manner in front of his peers. Caucus the team as to which aspects of collaboration and communication most need agreed-upon norms right now, and tackle them first, even if (especially if!) they’re difficult to discuss. See related article: Trans-Atlantic Roundtable.
  • Keep roles and responsibilities fairly stable, unless change is unavoidable. In general, predictable roles and responsibilities make it easier for team members to focus on their work. If roles do need to change, such as when some people leave and new ones come on board, make sure everyone has a shared understanding of the big picture. Be achingly explicit in your communications, both spoken and written. (Drawing pictures or showing models to show new relationships can do wonders to improve understanding, especially for global teams.) Set aside time in your team meetings to talk through a few typical scenarios that illustrate the most significant changes. Allow time to ask questions, both during the real-time conversation and asynchronously. Consider whether anonymity will be important to make people feel safe in asking questions or raising concerns.
  • Remember that the world is becoming more agile. Tasks and deliverables are bound to change and shift. Think of an expansive plot of farmland that’s marked off with clearly-defined fences for certain crops. While the fences are likely to stay put, what’s grown on each plot might change from season to season or year to year. When tasks and deliverables change, whether planned or not, make sure that everyone is in the loop. If your team uses some sort of dashboard, make sure to alert team members to important changes as quickly as possible. Make sure to discuss how these changes affect the whole team, especially if it may not be obvious at first. For example, a seemingly simple change to an accounting system may have legal and IT ramifications that merit exploration by the team.
  • Membership should have its privileges. Find ways to make being a part of the team an advantage. For example, maybe the team can select its own virtual collaboration tools or mobile devices. Or perhaps there are ways to minimize reports and meetings that don’t directly contribute to team goals. Think of meaningful ways you can extend special privileges to your virtual team. Ask team members what’s important, and balance that with what’s reasonable.

Consider the hidden cost of muddy projects and murky team charters to your team. What are the quantifiable ramifications that can be measured if you look closely?   They include delays, budget overruns, missed opportunities, unnecessary nuisance communications, misspent resources, poor decision-making, excessive meetings, and many other kinds of expensive and unnecessary disruptions. Instead, take a step back as a team and assess which boundaries and relationships most need clearing up. Take the time to start there and watch your team members exceed their own expectations.


Jumpstart the creation of a team charter for your virtual team with this downloadable checklist.

Have a look at some of our past Communique ezines that provide dozens of practical tips for better communications across cross-functional teams

Workshops from Guided Insights to help create the capacity of teams to thrive in the virtual world


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