Team-building strategies for the virtual team


Virtual teams are common in today's workforce especially as more organizations move to a management-by-projects approach. They are no longer considered to be unique but instead are viewed as a routine way of working. However, many of these virtual teams will never meet face to face on a project, or if they have the luxury of a face-to-face meeting, typically, it is held at the beginning of the project, and these meetings are not regular occurrences.

On a collocated project, where team meetings are common, it is easy to use each of these meetings as an opportunity for team building. and often, a special meeting is held just to focus on team building and the difficult people aspects of the project. The virtual team does not provide these opportunities. This paper presents strategies for team building on the virtual team.

After a brief overview on the growth and use of virtual teams in organizations and a discussion of the types of virtual teams, the paper focuses on team-building considerations. It then presents seven team-building strategies for implementation on a project.

The Growth of Virtual Teams

Ten to 15 years ago, working with virtual teams was a novelty. There were few, if any processes and procedures in place to follow, and training courses on effective approaches to work in this environment were not available. Today, virtual team work is common and will only increase in the future.

Virtual teams are viewed as contributing to the growth of management by projects and are considered as strategic assets to the organization. A continuous ‘stream of projects’ has emerged as the method to ensure the growth and survival of the organization. Through the use of virtual teams, that are planned and supported appropriately, projects can be delivered in a more effective and efficient manner.

Types of Virtual Teams

There are several different types of virtual teams, and there are several definitions for a team. Katzenbach and Smith (1994) define a team as a small number of people with complementary skills committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach, for which they hold themselves mutually accountable. Parker (1994) states the team is a group of people with a high degree of interdependence geared toward the achievement of a goal or the completion of a task. Mayer (1998) defines the virtual team as one composed of people who are distributed across buildings, states, and countries. Delise et al. (2001) state a virtual team is a collection of task-driven members separated by geographic or temporal space. In both environments, there are similar levels of responsibility and accountability to perform various tasks and activities and a need for communication, team building and knowledge management. First, it is necessary to determine the type of team to be used on the virtual project.


One approach is to follow a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) and combine it with a resource breakdown structure. In this way, a work package is assigned to a separate team to design, plan, and implement this work and complete the deliverable. Each work package has a separate project manager, or a team leader for it, reporting to the overall project manager. The team responsible for a particular work package has no need to be in contact with other members of the team nor does it need to communicate with them.


If the project is one that is planned and implemented by a single team, a separate project manager for each work package is not required. Tasks are assigned on a team member-by-member basis as are resource allocations and schedule adjustments. The team works directly for the project manager, and team members are actively communicating and collaborating with others since everyone is working as a cohesive unit. For increased effectiveness these virtual teams require common processes and procedures that everyone supports.

Joint Ventures

With the increase in outsourcing and off-shoring, joint ventures are more common, even among companies that often are competitors. Drouin (2009) et al note that such joint ventures and alliances are ways to enter markets that in the past may not have been pursued by a single company on its own. They found in their research that some of these joint ventures are more successful than others; often this is due to the implementation of effective human resource management (HRM) processes. But attention to HRM tends to occur after the joint venture is established, rather than in the planning stage. Reporting on work done by Frayne and Geringer, who estimated that only four percent of the entire time devoted for forming the joint venture was devoted to HRM, they concluded is evident that for success, greater attention to team building is required.

Team-Building Considerations for the Virtual Team

The Project Management Institute (PMI® 2008a) discusses eight key interpersonal skills for project managers, one of which is team building, “the process of helping a group of individuals, bound by a common sense of purpose, to work interdependently with each other, the leader, external stakeholders, and the organization.” (p. 410). PMI® (2008a) further notes that team-building activities involve establishing goals, defining and negotiating roles and procedures, and establishing processes, including an emphasis on communication, managing conflicts, motivating, and leadership and states team building is not a one-time exercise but is a continual process throughout the project life cycle.

Key areas for team-building considerations in the virtual environment involve:

  • Personal flexibility. Since people are not collocated, virtual teams are often desired because members view them as a way to become effectively engaged and actively contribute to a project with minimal administrative structure and bureaucracy. Once the virtual team member commits to the project through a charter and understands his or her own roles and responsibilities, he or she can then execute them according to the project's schedule based on one's own schedule. With fewer administrative processes and procedures to follow, the virtual team member can focus on innovation and creativity in the work to be done. He or she can be more task oriented since the virtual team member is not encumbered by frequent interruptions in person by other team members; the communications are ones that are planned rather than impromptu enabling a greater concentration on the task to be done. Then, when team meetings are held, they tend to be more productive, following a set agenda especially if there are contributions from all the team members.
  • More interactive communications rather than those that are pushed or pulled. PMI® (2008a) describes these three communications methods noting that interactive is the more efficient method to follow. On a virtual team, one can receive ‘pushed’ communications such as letters, memos, status reports, etc., but mostly the virtual team concentrates on interactive communications with a communications plan specifying how and when communications will take place. With this plan, and methods for communication defined in the virtual team charter, the team member knows the expected protocols as to how often to check e-mails and when responses are due; when teleconferences will be held; and how portals, discussion forums and blogs are to be used. The virtual team can collectively determine how to reduce the ‘push communications’ that may be interesting but not necessary and also how to ensure that ‘pull communication’ processes are established so the recipient can check the knowledge repository at his or her convenience.
  • Greater use of communications and collaborative tools and techniques. The management-by-projects environment has increased throughout the world because of the ability to use virtual teams through the advanced communications technologies now available. The project manager, however, must ensure the same collaborative tools are available to all team members regardless of their location. Everyone must be able to access a portal, if one is to be used, use the same e-mail system, have the same project management tools and techniques, and have the ability to conduct video and audio teleconferences.
  • A high trust culture with core team values. It is easy on a virtual team to have an out of sight relationship and not to feel part of the team. Also other team members and the project manager may not trust someone who is totally new to the team. However, the virtual team allows the ability to obtain the services and skills of subject matter experts regardless of their location so a practice of ‘swift trust’ is required and one in which everyone expects there to be trust throughout the team. The goal, therefore, is to assume people trust one another until proven otherwise and to set up a climate of trustworthiness from the start of the project until its closure.
  • Collaborative leadership. Collaboration has long been recognized as a preferred problem-solving approach in which diverse points of view are merged to resolve conflicts. On the virtual team a collaborative leadership approach is preferred as the project manager cannot be in each location meeting with each stakeholder. Each team member assumes a leadership role whenever required, making sure he or she communicates with the project manager and other members of the team as needed. There is shared power among team members, and greater trust and rapport, as everyone is viewed more equally than in a collocated setting in which one's status, age, and experience is easily known.
  • Greater acceptance of change. While working on projects, the goal is to keep changes to a minimum, to help avoid scope creep, to ensure delivery dates are met, and budgets are not exceeded. However, with the continual changes in technology, downsizing, mergers, and acquisitions, changes also need to be embraced in a positive manner to ensure projects remain supportive of the organization's goals and objectives. It is easy to feel isolated on a virtual team so all team members must keep others informed about internal or external changes that may affect the project, and each team member then can readjust and reprioritize tasks to be performed as required for overall project success.
  • Dynamic team membership. Virtual teams may be established to use the expertise of people for those tasks in which they can contribute rather than having to train people in specific areas as on a collocated team in which people often remain on the team throughout its duration. However, since virtual team members join and leave the project at various times, team-building is a greater challenge. When new members join, they must be immediately informed as to the operating protocols of the team and commit to working on this virtual project by reviewing and signing the team's charter, making suggestions for improvement as appropriate. When a team member leaves the project, debriefing sessions must be conducted to promote the transfer of knowledge assets. These sessions focus on technical aspects of the project and are used to determine changes in the team's operating procedures with one another and to suggest ideas to further promote team building.
  • Less time to learn ways to effectively work with one another. Since people join the virtual team when their skills and expertise are required, there is less time to learn how to work with other team members. The purpose and vision of the project requires explanation and immediate commitment. Resource Assignment Matrices (RAMs) must be prepared and continually updated. New team members should be introduced to the team through conference calls, e-mails, and postings on discussion forums. A spirit of cooperation can permeate then from the beginning.
  • Working with people from different cultures. On virtual projects, there is an increased likelihood that one will work with others from different cultures. This diversity in team membership can be exploited to promote collaboration. However, it is necessary to understand the nuances of the different cultures that are represented and to ensure that each person respects the cultural differences that exist on the team. This means, for example, that different holidays should be recognized by the team; different styles of working and responding to communications, comments, and conflicts must be known; and a common team language should be used such as the standard English vocabulary of 4,000 words to best communicate without the use of slang and other terms unfamiliar to non-native English speakers. (Kolby, 2000).
  • Visibility when working on a virtual team. A common concern when assigned to work on a virtual team is that one's individual contributions may not be recognized to the extent they would if on a collocated team. While a team-based reward and recognition system should be in place, individual contributions also need recognition as well, and one's work on the virtual team should be in each team member's performance plan with set objectives and goals.
  • Required knowledge, skills, and competencies. While virtual teams afford the opportunity to select team members with desired knowledge, skills, and competencies, it is necessary to recognize that each project has its own degree of uniqueness. Therefore, when the virtual team member joins the project, he or she requires information as to its vision, mission, deliverables, and benefits to determine if the team member can make a positive contribution. If the team member believes the technical aspects of the project are ones in which he or she cannot contribute effectively, the team member should mention this concern to the project manager without fear of reprisal.
  • Surface conflict for a swift resolution. Often on a virtual team, conflicts may exist between team members that are not apparent to others on the team. These conflicts can involve technical aspects of the project as well as personalities. If one recognizes that such conflicts do exist, he or she needs to talk with the team members involved and escalate them to the project manager if a resolution cannot be reached in a timely manner. Team member may need to be facilitators at times to work with others and promote the positive aspects of conflicts, reaching resolution when any negative aspects are apparent.

Virtual Team-Building Approaches

The emphasis in both the virtual and collocated team is to focus on team effectiveness, and there are many managerial similarities. While there may only be subtle differences in terms of effective team-building techniques in the virtual term versus those of the collocated team, some approaches for virtual team building follow.

Clarifying roles and responsibilities. On any project, clarity in roles and responsibilities is required. However, it is especially necessary in a virtual project and even in those projects in which some team members already may know others from previous work together. Each team member must recognize what he or she must do on the project in order that all the required work gets done in a timely manner and so people do not do work that is assigned to others. PMI's® (2008a) definitions of roles (“the portion of a project for which a person is accountable” and responsibility (“the work that a project team member is expected to perform to complete the project's activities” (pp. 222-23) can be used. Development of a RAM by the entire team can promote team-building on any project. This RAM should link to the WBS work packages so each individual recognizes how his or her deliverables support the entire project.

Further, a team charter can clarify the operating procedures or ground rules by which the team will operate. It too is a team-building technique as it is prepared by the team for the team's use, with signoffs on it by the project manager and each team member. When new members join the team, they should review and signoff on it. This charter states the purpose and vision of the project, team member roles and responsibilities, team decision-making approaches and constraints, methods to communicate with one another, methods to resolve conflicts within the team without escalating them to the project manager and when escalation should be done, collective problem solving, team-based reward and recognition systems, and team-building approaches to be used with specific goals.

Adjusting to the uncertainty of the project and its priority to the organization. Priorities are continually changing in organizations with challenges affecting strategic goals and objectives and strategic plan. If project portfolio management is actively practiced, a project that may be considered to be the highest priority today may change if the organization's overall strategy changes. Each person on the project should know the project's priority, and this becomes is critical on a virtual project especially when the project begins. Team members may be reluctant to be assigned to a virtual project if they are already working on higher priority projects or ones of greater interest to them. Consequently, each individual requires understanding of the project's contribution to overall corporate strategy and must recognize the added value of this virtual project to the organization.

Avoiding the surfacing of self doubt or old grievances. It is easy when one is assigned to a new project, especially a virtual one, to perhaps have a sense of frustration, apprehension, or even lack of confidence. While to some individuals such an assignment represents an exciting challenge, to others it may represent a project that is viewed as a hindrance and for which one lacks motivation. Further, team members, especially on a virtual team, may not feel any connection to other team members as they are unaware if they have any common interests other than the project. If people obviously do not wish to be on the project, the project manager should strive to identify them early so they do not impart their negative attitudes to others.

Often, though, this cannot be done so team building is essential throughout the project's life cycle. The project manager can set the stage for success serving as a facilitator. In this role, he or she establishes an atmosphere in which team agreement is to be reached if at all possible on all major issues, promotes open communications and confrontation as required, ensures people have the tools and techniques they need to do their work effectively and efficiently, and sets the stage for team and individual career development. The project manager can only facilitate this process; he or she on his or her own cannot complete the project but just set the stage for its success by development and execution of a team-building plan.

Implementing a collaborative leadership role. Often it is easy to state that the team will follow a collaborative leadership approach, but it is difficult to implement. However, on a virtual team, collaborative leadership is a necessity especially in situations in which a team member, not the project manager, is in the same geographic area as the customer or a major stakeholder and will be that person's principal point of contact. Also, the subject matter expert on the team may need to be the person who must interface directly with a comparable person on the customer's team. For collaboration to be effective, an atmosphere of respect must exist among the team members, realizing each person has been assigned to the team based on his or her knowledge, skills, and competencies.

Implementing a team-based reward and recognition system. The PMBOK® Guide recommends a team-based reward and recognition system noting that only “desirable behavior” should be rewarded (PMI®a, 2008, p. 234). It states the importance of considering cultural differences when rewards are given and stresses public recognition of outstanding performance as a way to increase motivation on any team, virtual or collocated.

A team-based system is difficult to implement since traditionally performance plans are individually based with individual goals and objectives, and often these objectives do not include work on a virtual team but instead are set by functional managers. Use of a team reward and recognition system, along with an individual performance plan, is a culture change for many organizations with both tied to the organization's strategic objectives. Outstanding individual performance also requires recognition, but as suggested by the PMBOK® Guide (PMI®a 2008, p. 234), it must be recognized in a manner that does not affect the cohesiveness of the team.

Involving the team in decision making. In virtual teams, it is easy for the team member who is located in the same geographic area as a stakeholder or customer to make a decision if there is an issue or problem to resolve on his or her own. And, the project manager may ask that he or she be involved and consulted before any decisions are made. The best practice to follow is to engage the entire team when needed or those key experts regardless of their location before a decision is made. Then, based on the nature of the problem, and the decision that was reached, the communications plan should be followed so everyone on the team is aware of the problem and the actual decision should it affect their work. In this situation, the RAM should be used along with open communications as the norm within the team.

Using different motivational techniques. Motivation is a concept that is difficult to describe, but it is used throughout organizational theory and HRM. One definition of it is: “A process, action, or intervention that serves as an incentive for a project team member to take the necessary action to complete a task within the appropriate confines and scope of performance, time, and cost” (Flannes and Levin, 2001, p. 134). Additionally, as Jack Welch notes (1995 in Wisdom, Inc.), “We have to undo a one hundred-year-old concept and convince our managers that their role is not to control people and stay ‘on top’ of things, but rather to guide, energize and excite.”

This management style often is difficult but is necessary in the virtual environment since management-by-walking around is not an option. To assist in this process, it helps to know each team member's preferred motivational style. On-line assessments can be used if the team commits to the process and wishes to complete them. Once one's preferred motivational style is determined, the project manager can use this information to assign tasks to team members and to determine the best ways for interaction. If it is a mature team, these styles can be shared with the team to better understand one another. If the team does not use these assessments, another approach is to follow the career stages based on age developed by Edgar Schein (1990). If the project manager knows the age of the team member, he or she can use these stages to determine motivational approach that may be most appropriate for team members.

Using mentoring. Mentoring is one of the four key roles of the project manager (Flannes and Levin, 2005). There are a number of purposes of mentoring, but typically, the purpose is to help improve the competencies of team members on a one on one basis and/or those of the overall team.

Ideally, the mentor and mentee meet regularly to discuss problems and challenges and ways to best solve them. On a virtual team, such meetings will be conducted by phone or through e-mails or discussion forums. The mentee must feel comfortable discussing any issues with the mentor, and a confidential relationship is required for trust. A best practice is to establish an informal relationship at the beginning to ensure the mentee and mentor can easily and openly communicate and wish to formalize the relationship. Then, defined goals and objectives can be established to improve overall competencies of the mentee. Mentoring activities must be ones that support not only the project's goals and objectives but also the organization's strategic objectives. The mentor then provides regular feedback on the mentoring activities in an anonymous fashion to show improvements and contributions to overall benefits. (P-CMMM®, 2001)

Modeling stress management techniques. Stress is common in everyone's life. It can be both positive and negative, and different people on the project team will react to stress in different ways. Since the virtual team tends to be established so new people are added throughout the life cycle when their expertise is required, it basically is an agile team. If someone on the team is experiencing higher levels of negative stress than normal and to ensure this stress does not hinder the overall productivity or morale of the entire team, it is easier in the virtual environment to locate another individual with similar skills and competencies and add him or her to the team, enabling the other team member to return to a functional organization or to a less stressful project. Team members need to be alert to situations on the team that can be sources of stress and then work with the team members involved, and the project manager, to see what can be done to change the working conditions to ones that are less stressful and more productive.

Ensuring the project does not veer off track by conducting with the team a “people issues” audit. Project managers and team members often view audits as ones conducted for compliance purposes that focus on the triple constraints and customer satisfaction. While these audits are needed and should be scheduled regularly to improve overall project performance, people issues audits also can be conducted. For effectiveness, the team must support these audits and be candid as to how overall team effectiveness can be improved.

Audits tend to be conducted by someone outside of the project team. Focusing on the people areas, auditors review the team charter and any other guidelines or procedures that are in place, notes from the team's exit interviews with staff members who have left the project, and the knowledge repository. Auditors conduct interviews with team members focusing on the people aspects of the project to gain insights into the effectiveness of the existing teambuilding activities and how they might be improved. Once the auditors complete their work, their report should be shared with the team collectively so the team can determine whether the auditors’ recommendations are beneficial and can help improve overall team working conditions and performance.

Seven Guidelines for Virtual-Team Building

1.   The importance of the project vision. According to PMI® (2008b), the vision is the desired end state. It reflects the project's goals and objectives and their link to the overall organizational goals and objectives showing how the project contributes to these objectives and the project's specific benefits. Each individual must ensure that his or her own view of the project's vision supports that of the team. The project's vision should be discussed at the kickoff meeting and reviewed when other meetings are held, when changes occur that affect the overall strategy of the performing organization or that of the project's customer, and when new members join the team.

2.   Recognition of individual differences. Each individual communicates differently. On a virtual team these differences are less apparent since communication is primarily through words (Mehrabian, 1968), and the typical clues of body language are not apparent. By recognizing the preferred styles of communication of the team members on the virtual team, more open communication will result. During team meetings, each person must speak and contribute, so the meeting is viewed in a positive way.

3.   Tailored motivation strategies. Motivation differs for each individual. Many people will find work on the virtual team to be a rewarding experience, while others will prefer to work in a collocated environment. Knowledge of the individual's preferred motivational style assists the project manager in assigning roles and responsibilities and in working with the team member to achieve higher levels of overall importance.

4.   Use of effective interpersonal communications skills. On any project, different interpersonal communications skills are needed. It may be appropriate to only use e-mail, but at other times phone calls are needed, and meetings may be required. Effective communications cannot be under-estimated since research (Stuckenbruck and Marshall, 1985) shows project managers spend approximately 90% of their time communicating. On a virtual team, communications is even more importance with some team members located in the same geographic areas as customers and stakeholders. Strategies to promote effective communications at all levels are required.

5.   Use of different conflict resolution techniques at different stages in the project life cycle. Conflicts are common on all projects, and different types of conflicts occur at different stages in the project's life cycle (Thamhain and Wilmon, 1975). The positive aspects of conflict must be recognized especially with a culturally diverse team so different points of view can be merged for effective solutions. Different conflict resolution modes (Blake and Mouton, 1964; Thomas and Killmann, 1974) also are appropriate for the various conflicts that may occur, knowing when best to employ each one.

6.   Offer suggestions to keep performance at optimal levels. The overall goal of project teams is to be a high-performance team, but it takes time to become a high-performance team and takes even longer in a virtual team. A method to quickly assimilate new team members into the project is required, and continual reviews of project effectiveness can point out how to best sustain such optimal performance.

7.   Respond quickly to crisis situations. Projects will have crises or critical incidents associated with them. The project manager must be notified whenever a critical incident affects a team member, such as an illness or death of a family member. In these situations, the project manager must take a proactive role and hold meetings with the entire team to address the situation. A critical incident stress debriefing may be needed (Flannes and Levin, 2005) or a recovery plan if the affected team member(s) no longer can complete their assigned tasks.


Virtual teams are a reality today, and their use will only continue in the future. As project managers and team members, virtual teams represent continuous improvement, not business as usual, and organizations now actively support their use.


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© 2009, Ginger Levin, PMP, PgMP
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA



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