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Building a Virtual Team One Step at a Time

Posted by Yael Zofi on Jul 22nd, 2015

For Virtual Teams Both Large and Small


I’m sure you’ve asked yourself, ‘What do I need to do to ensure I’m building a virtual team the best way to set us up for success?


I know that when some colleagues join small virtual teams (with only 2 or 3 members) they may assume that just because each team member is easily reachable via phone or a quick email/text, then everyone is on the ‘same page’. Yes, it’s true that the right technology can greatly aid virtual teams, but that is not enough to ensure high performance.


For all virtual teams one of the most important team building strategies is having a Team Code (please see paragraph below) to guide team members’ interactions. This is particularly important when virtual members are from different cultures. There’s danger in assuming that just because your colleagues share business goals and agree on the timeline for key deliverables that you share an understanding of unwritten rules of functioning on a virtual team.


But what exactly does Team Code mean? Yael Zofi , in her latest book, A Manager’s Guide to Virtual Teams explains Team Code as norms around (1) communications, (2) deadlines, (3) decision making, (4) conflict management, and (5) information sharing.
Here are some practical strategies about setting up a Team Code that were discussed in previous blog posts (‘Setting Your Team Code’ and ‘Setting Your Team Code: Questions to Explore – Part 2’ ).


Building a Virtual Team of Two!


Let’s look at this example: June is an Asian-American senior professional located in the U.S. who was recently asked to head the Japanese operations of her corporate group – from the U.S. Toma is an experienced senior Japanese professional who was recently recruited as her direct report to ramp up the Japanese operations from his part of the world. ‘Lucky for me,’ June told herself. ‘I don’t have to spend much time on building a virtual team since it’s just the two of us. We’re both professionals and we’ll do fine.’


With that in mind June flew to Tokyo for a one day face-to-face meeting with Toma, during his first week on the job, to brief him about his role; one month later he came to New York for a couple of days to meet senior directors – – and that was the extent of their face time. However, they agreed on communicating with each other for periodic updates as follows: (1) weekly phone calls between them and (2) a biweekly email summary from Toma to keep her informed about the latest developments.


Now, several weeks into this arrangement, June has concluded that what seemed like a good plan was not working out and her idea of not spending much time on building a virtual team was not well thought out. First, Toma’s biweekly update emails were not as comprehensive as needed, which meant that she had to send Toma additional emails to follow up on certain issues that he did not address. June really became concerned when Toma did not respond to her ‘need your update’ emails. In addition, as the operation rolled out, June and Toma are now disagreeing about the best way to motivate the team, in spite of tight budgets.


Unfortunately, with every expense scrutinized, Toma’s idea of taking eight of his key managers to an elaborate thank you dinner was not something June could sign off on. While she was not happy about refusing Toma’s request, she fully expected him to understand and plan another way to thank his team (even though he had already told them about the dinner). But Toma did not want to go back on his word to his subordinates and held the dinner at his own expense. When June’s boss learned what Toma did he insisted that the company pay Toma back. June was doubly troubled. Not only was this setting a dangerous precedent, it seemed to her that Toma was rewarded for defying her.


Toma has to feel free to air his disagreements with me,’ she told herself, ‘but if something has already been decided, I expect him to act accordingly.’


What should June do now? Can she salvage the situation?


Now June is trying to figure how to have a slightly uncomfortable conversation with Toma about team norms. She has several things to keep in mind. ‘First and foremost, I can’t dampen his enthusiasm and his drive to bring in more clients. Now I’m questioning whether the fact that I’m a woman makes it hard for Toma to think of me as an authority figure, namely his boss. He’s a Japanese male, and I wonder if that makes it difficult for him to be subordinate to a woman, one with Chinese ancestors.’ It’s true that cross cultural norms and historical conflicts may have had a role to play here, but I know from my consulting practice that had June developed a Team Code when Toma first joined her team, she would have avoided a lot of trouble. The good news is that it’s still not too late to resolve the situation.


Does this sound familiar? Have you ever faced a similar situation?


Regardless whether you are building a virtual team of 2 or 20 and whether they all belong to the same culture or not, developing a Team Code and setting the course for the virtual team’s operation (even for 2 members) plays a crucial role in reducing misunderstandings, conflicts, trust breakdowns, shifting priorities, and the loss of resources.


How did June Resolve This Situation?


She arranged an in-person meeting for a realignment conversation where they came to an agreement about Team Code. Before this meeting she thought about the best strategy to ensure this conversation would go well. ‘I can’t make him feel like I’m evaluating his behavior, that I’m judging him. I have to frame it that this is a second chance to sit together and strategize about how we will succeed as a team – – all of us together.’


Fortunately, June was able to put her feelings aside, focus on building a virtual team and deal with the personal preferences and cultural differences that often derail situations like hers. While there are still bumps along the way, June stays sensitive to Toma’s way of thinking and often anticipates issues that could grow into major disagreements. It takes constant vigilance on her part, but June is the first to say it’s worth the effort.



Yael Zofi regularly acts as a consultant to global and local teams to get organized and helps team leaders establish operating principles for the team to follow in terms of ground rules, accountability measures and feedback loops. Check out Yael’s website for more details about the Strategic Guidance & Consultation services in this regard.



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