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Virtual teams, whose members are geographically dispersed and cross-functional yet work on highly interdependent tasks, present unique leadership challenges. Based on our observations, interviews, and survey data, we identify six leadership practices of effective leaders of virtual teams. Specifically, we elaborate how leaders of successful virtual teams: 1) establish and maintain trust through the use of communication technology; 2) ensure that distributed diversity is understood and appreciated; 3) manage virtual work-life cycle (meetings); 4) monitor team progress using technology; 5) enhance visibility of virtual members within the team and outside in the organization; and 6) enable individual members of the virtual team to benefit from the team. These practices of virtual team leaders can be used to establish a foundation for training and developing future virtual team leaders.
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ARTICLES
Leading Virtual Teams
by Arvind Malhotra, Ann Majchrzak, and Benson Rosen
Executive Overview
Virtual teams, whose members are geographically dispersed and cross-functional yet work on highly
interdependent tasks, present unique leadership challenges. Based on our observations, interviews, and
survey data, we identify six leadership practices of effective leaders of virtual teams. Specifically, we
elaborate how leaders of successful virtual teams: 1) establish and maintain trust through the use of
communication technology; 2) ensure that distributed diversity is understood and appreciated; 3) manage
virtual work-life cycle (meetings); 4) monitor team progress using technology; 5) enhance visibility of
virtual members within the team and outside in the organization; and 6) enable individual members of the
virtual team to benefit from the team. These practices of virtual team leaders can be used to establish a
foundation for training and developing future virtual team leaders.
Virtual teams are teams whose members are
geographically distributed, requiring them to
work together through electronic means with
minimal face-to-face interaction. Often, virtual
teams consist of cross-functional members work-
ing on highly interdependent tasks and sharing
responsibility for team outcomes. More and more,
the deployment of virtual teams in organizations
requires some level of team-based innovation to
leverage and integrate diverse expertise (e.g.,
functional/organizational/regional expertise) and
to generate an innovative product, process, or
business strategy (Lipnack & Stamps, 2000; Du-
arte & Snyder, 1999; & Townsend, DeMarie, &
Hendrickson, 1998). Individuals placed on vir-
tual teams are invaluable in terms of their exper-
tise to the organization (locally as well as glo-
bally), and thus are on multiple teams simulta-
neously (many of which are geographically co-
located). Consequently, travel even for short
face-to-face team meetings is counterproductive
as it takes the member away from the local con-
stituency they need to consult for decisions and
information.
Thus, while the term virtual team can apply to
any team of geographically distributed people—
even if they are working on routine problems and
can travel often for face-to-face team meetings—
we are interested in that subset of virtual teams
whose objective is innovation without colloca-
tion. We believe that it is with these teams that
the huge challenge of leadership is particularly
acute because the leader has the joint challenge of
geographic dispersion and innovative problem-
solving.
Much has been written about how virtual
teams differ from face-to-face teams in terms of
We would like to thank the Society for Information Management,
Netage, Kathy Chudoba, and Groove for helping us identify successful
virtual teams.
*Arvind Malhotra (Arvind_Malhotra@kenan-flagler.unc.edu) is an Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Kenan-Flagler Business
School, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Ann Majchrzak (majchrza@usc.edu) is a Professor of Information and Operations Management, Marshall School of Business, University
of Southern California.
Benson Rosen (Ben_Rosen@unc.edu) is the Robert March and Mildred Borden Hanes Professor of Organizational Behavior/Strategy,
Kenan-Flagler Business School, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
60 FebruaryAcademy of Management Perspectives
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coordination, communication, and collaboration
(Fiol & O’Connor, 2005; Saunders, Van Slyke, &
Vogel, 2004; Gibson & Cohen, 2003; Majchrzak,
Malhotra, Stamps, & Lipnack, 2004; Furst,
Reeves, Rosen, & Blackburn, 2004; Jarvenpaa,
Shaw, & Staples, 2004; Maznevski & Chudoba,
2000; Kirkman, Rosen, Gibson, Tesluk, &
McPherson, 2002). Considerable attention has
also focused on the communication technologies
needed to facilitate virtual work and enable
knowledge sharing (Malhotra & Majchrzak, 2004,
2005; Cascio, 2000; Zigurs, 2003; & Davis, 2004).
However, the special skills needed to lead teams
that have both geographic dispersion and innova-
tive problem-solving challenges have received
limited attention in research.
Some researchers have begun to uncover the
nature of virtual leadership in experimental labo-
ratory settings (Kayworth & Leidner, 2001/2002).
Others have outlined strategies for virtual team
leaders (Malhotra & Majchrzak, 2006). However,
a large-scale field study of how virtual team leaders
manage the joint challenges of dispersion and
innovative problem-solving is yet to be reported.
Over the past seven years, we have collected
survey and interview data from virtual team lead-
ers, members, and sponsors. We began our re-
search by following a virtual team at Boeing-
Rocketdyne though its life-cycle from inception
to project completion (Malhotra, Majchrzak, Car-
men, & Lott, 2001). In a follow-up large-scale
research study, we interviewed team members and
team leaders and attended virtual team meetings
of 55 successful virtual teams in 33 different com-
panies to make observations of leadership prac-
tices in action (see Appendix A for a complete
description of our research methodology). In this
paper we present results of our research. We high-
light six practices used by virtual team leaders that
help manage the joint challenge of innovative
problem-solving while being dispersed.
Leadership Practices of Virtual Team Leaders
Leaders of all teams— dispersed or collocated—
that are engaged in innovative problem-solving
have a number of responsibilities that they
must discharge. These include articulating a vi-
sion for the team, communicating the vision with
passion, setting an execution plan so the vision
can be accomplished, forming coalitions of believ-
ers, aligning others behind the vision, and shaping
a team culture by articulating operating values.
All leaders carry out these responsibilities by se-
lecting and motivating the right members for the
teams, establishing the right norms of behaviors,
encouraging social events, building trust, setting
goals, preparing the team to anticipate and cope
with novel situations, fostering internal commu-
nications, and recognizing contributions.
Leaders of successful virtual teams engaged in
innovative problem-solving are no different.
Leaders of virtual teams spend time mentoring the
team members, enforcing norms, and recognizing
and rewarding members and the team. However,
some of these responsibilities are difficult to exer-
cise without the benefit of physical presence.
Leaders of collocated teams can physically observe
when the team is getting sluggish, when the team
needs a social event to rebuild momentum, when
the team needs focus and direction, and when the
team needs resources. The leaders of virtual teams
don’t have the same powers of physical observa-
tion, and have to be creative in setting up struc-
tures and processes so that variations from expec-
tations can be observed virtually. Leaders of
virtual teams cannot assume that members are
prepared for virtual meetings. Virtual team leaders
have to sense when “electronic” silence means
acquiescence rather than inattention. Leaders also
have to ensure that the unique knowledge of each
distributed person on the virtual team is being
fully utilized. Now we look at the six leadership
practices—identified in our research—that lead-
ers of successful teams use to overcome the unique
challenges of managing virtual teams.
Establish and Maintain Trust Through the Use
of Communication Technology
In virtual teams, trust is often based on actions,
rather than goodwill (Jarvenpaa & Leidner,
1999). Because goodwill is hard to observe vir-
tually, expectations about actions and the actions
themselves need to be made as explicit as possible
for all others to see. This is done first by focusing
on the norms regarding how information will be
2007 61Malhotra, Majchrzak, and Rosen
communicated during the course of their virtual
work. Several of the teams we studied struggled
initially because they lacked a common set of
procedures or way of doing things. In the absence
of communication norms, team members resorted
to using the practices prevalent in their local
setting. This often led to each team member com-
municating in her/his own way, and thus not
adequately sharing information with other team
members. The result was a lack of cohesion and
difficulty in integrating the work of different team
members.
Virtual teams need norms that describe how
communication technology will be used. These
norms describe how often to check the team’s
knowledge repository, how to ensure that the re-
pository is a “living” team room (to encourage
active electronic discussions and ensure that the
latest versions of evolving documents are main-
tained) rather than a place to store old docu-
ments. Norms also need to be established regard-
ing what to post (to avoid information overload),
when to post (to support work coordination), how
to comment (to ensure documents stay current),
who owns documents for revisions (to support
version control), how to inform other members of
their whereabouts (to help establish virtual co-
presence), etiquette for electronic communication
(e.g., use of all capitals only to express urgency),
and audio-conferencing (e.g., prefacing verbal
comments with team member’s name to avoid
confusion over who is talking).
Trust within a team can be harmed by breaches
in confidentiality outside of the team. As breaches
cannot be physically observed (given that mem-
bers are not collocated), an important norm for
the team concerns what should be shared outside
the team. One team had an external communica-
tion norm that restricted team members from con-
veying negative information to anyone outside
the team. Another team had a norm that limited
access to the team’s virtual workspace to team
members, “locking out” managers. Most teams had
an “external-facing” website where they would put
Table 1
Practices of Effective Virtual Team Leaders
Leadership Practices of Virtual Team
Leaders How do Virtual Team Leaders do it?
Establish and Maintain
Trust Through the Use of
Communication Technology
Focusing the norms on how information is communicated
Revisiting and adjusting the communication norms as the team evolves (“virtual get-togethers”)
Making progress explicit through use of team virtual workspace
Equal “suffering” in the geographically distributed world
Ensure Diversity in the Team is
Understood, Appreciated, and Leveraged
Prominent team expertise directory and skills matrix in the virtual workspace
Virtual sub-teaming to pair diverse members and rotate sub-team members
Allowing diverse opinions to be expressed through use of asynchronous electronic means (e.g.
electronic discussion threads)
Manage Virtual Work-Cycle and Meetings All idea divergence between meetings (asynchronous idea generation) and idea convergence
and conflict resolution during virtual meetings (synchronous idea convergence)
Use the start of virtual meeting (each time) for social relationship building
During meeting—ensure through “check-ins” that everyone is engaged and heard from
End of meeting—ensure that the minutes and future work plan is posted to team repository
Monitor Team Progress Through the Use
of Technology
Closely scrutinize asynchronous (electronic threaded discussion and document postings in the
knowledge repository) and synchronous (virtual meeting participation and instant messaging)
communications patterns
Make progress explicit through balanced scorecard measurements posted in the team’s virtual
workspace
Enhance External Visibility of the Team
and its Members
Frequent report-outs to a virtual steering committee (comprised of local bosses of team
members)
Ensure Individuals Benefit from
Participating in Virtual Teams
Virtual reward ceremonies
Individual recognition at the start of each virtual meeting
Making each team member’s “real location” boss aware of the member’s contribution
62 FebruaryAcademy of Management Perspectives
documents to be shared with outside team mem-
bers. Discussions were typically needed among all
team members to confirm that a document was
ready to be shared externally.
Not only must team norms be established
for the use of communication technology,
but they must be repeatedly revisited. The vir-
tual team leaders we observed did this through
“virtual-get-togethers” in which members would
use the time to reexamine norms and renew
their sense of purpose and shared identity.
These get-togethers were called various names
including team tuning sessions, rejuvenation,
yearly strategic meetings, team development
sessions, and in-process self-evaluations. Some-
times these “virtual-get-togethers” were annual,
sometimes on an as-needed basis. All shared
the objective of helping the team to evaluate
their process and reinvigorate their identity
and direction as a team.
The leaders of the most effective virtual teams
developed a “virtual” sense about when these in-
terventions were needed to reenergize their teams.
They were sensitive to clues such as participation
lapses in asynchronous electronic discussions, and
terse and potentially divisive electronic commu-
nications among some members. Such electronic
clues indicated that the virtual team needed an
opportunity to “clear the virtual air and get back on
the same page.”
Ensuring that everyone “suffered” equally from
working in a geographically distributed world also
created trust. The team leaders rotated the times
at which weekly audio-conferences were held so
that everyone (at some point in the team’s life
cycle) would experience the pain of a late night or
early morning meeting. Making explicit the task
progress based on agreed-upon timelines also
helped to create virtual team trust. Leaders of
successful virtual teams required their members to
regularly post their work outputs in the team re-
pository and electronically link it to action item
lists and project timelines. These postings also
helped to create competency-based trust among
team members as other members could “virtually”
observe the contributions being made.
In sum, one insightful virtual team leader from
an international computer technology company
pointed out that it was critical for the virtual team
members to trust the leader and trust each other.
“The quickest ways to build trust in a virtual team,”
he noted, “was to play fair and deliver on your
promises.”
Ensure That Diversity in the Team is
Understood, Appreciated, and Leveraged
Virtual teams are composed of individuals rep-
resenting a rich diversity of stakeholders, ex-
periences, functions, organizations, decision-
making styles, and interests. The team’s ability to
successfully innovate is in large part based on how
well this diversity is understood, appreciated, and
leveraged.
A common way leaders of virtual teams ensure
that diversity is understood and appreciated is to
develop an explicit “expertise directory” at the
onset of the team. The directory can include a
photo of each member along with information
about his or her training, experience, previous
assignments, and professional association affilia-
tions. A virtual team leader in the petroleum
industry noted that collaboration between virtual
team members started once members knew more
about the background and expertise of each team
member. He said, “Face-to-face teams would learn
what they needed to know for good collaboration over
dinner and drinks, but the virtual team members will
just have to settle for the electronic directory.” Other
team leaders placed a skills matrix of the team in
a visible location on the team’s virtual workspace
to remind everyone on the team of the “deep local
domain expertise” that each member brought to the
team. The expertise directory and the skills matrix
are both means to understand diversity and sow
the seeds for building competency-based trust.
Since members of the virtual teams we studied
had rarely worked with one another in the past,
most didn’t know what the others knew or their
working styles. So team leaders often assigned
pairs of individuals to complete a task, picking the
pairs based on who could benefit the most by
learning from each other. These pairs are often
geographically distributed and functionally di-
verse (e.g., pairing a design engineer in Brazil with
a marketing expert in Sweden). Such combina-
2007 63Malhotra, Majchrzak, and Rosen
tions would not be possible in a collocated team.
Once the task is accomplished, the individuals
can be redistributed to new tasks to avoid the
ingroup-outgroup fault lines often observed in vir-
tual teams. When the virtual pairs (sub-teams) are
composed of culturally diverse members, the close
working relationship proved an excellent way to
break down cultural stereotypes and overcome
communications barriers. According to one leader
in the international travel and relocation busi-
ness, “The virtual bonding that took place within the
pairs and sub-groups seemed to endure and carry over
to the full team, contributing to greater collaboration
and team cohesiveness.”
Most successful virtual team leaders establish a
synchronous as well as an asynchronous collabo-
ration rhythm. In most traditional face-to-face
collaborations (and even some unsuccessful vir-
tual teams), team members wait until face-to-face
or synchronous (such as all-team audio conferenc-
ing) meetings to brainstorm and make progress on
the innovation task. On the other hand, success-
ful virtual teams use the time between meetings to
asynchronously (through use of electronic discus-
sion threads and annotation of documents in the
repository) generate and evaluate ideas. By work-
ing asynchronously virtual team members can
pick and choose when they can make their con-
tributions. This allows team members with diverse
backgrounds to have a different rhythm and pace
of generating their own ideas and digesting others’
ideas. Leaders also use asynchronous discussion
threads to identify areas of disagreements because
the discussion threads give members with different
language capabilities time to share their thoughts
in their non-native languages in ways that they
find difficult in synchronous (fast-paced audio-
conference) sessions.
Manage Virtual Work-Cycle and Meetings
There have been some that say virtual brain-
storming is not possible, that when you can’t
see the “whites of one’s eyes” it is hard to judge
the confidence that others have in what they are
suggesting or what you are proposing. Yet, the
team leaders have to be able to facilitate virtual
brainstorming. How do they do it?
A large majority of team leaders in our studies
reported that regular all-team audio-conferences
were the “life-blood” of the team, even when tasks
were distributed among all the team members.
The meetings were structured, though, not just for
reporting and coordination, but also for discus-
sions. In order to “keep everyone in the loop” it
was often mandated that all team members attend
these audio-conference sessions (some were as fre-
quent as once every week).
Virtual team leaders use meetings as the way to
keep members engaged, excited about the work,
and aligned with each other. Virtual team meet-
ings (especially the ones that involved all team
members) are “premium” activities. Team leaders
need to ensure that a clear agenda is set out for
these meetings and communicated in advance.
Such meetings have a tendency to get off-track (or
as a leader put it, “hijacked”). Team leaders have
to ensure that the agenda is adhered to and that
the “attention-span” at virtual meetings is opti-
mized. Because members can be easily distracted
in a virtual meeting, meetings should be treated
not simply as a semi-structured activity in which
members share, but rather as an opportunity to
instill creativity, focus, and enthusiasm. For a
meeting to capitalize on this opportunity, it must
be managed carefully as a highly choreographed
event. Several practices were used to turn meet-
ings into choreographed events. These practices
can be categorized as stages in an event lifecycle:
Pre-meeting Practices
As one leader commented to us: “We found that
planning out a meeting poorly for a collocated team is
OK; but in a virtual environment, team pre-planning
is critical. Otherwise nothing gets done and bridge
meetings are required to fill in the gaps.” In order to
ensure that the work is accomplished, between
virtual meetings, a large majority of team leaders
we observed follow these practices:
Begin electronic discussion threads about the
team’s current work activities prior to all-team
audio-conference meetings. (Posting draft doc-
uments in the virtual workspace and asking
team members to comment on them often
started these discussion threads. The comments
posted on the discussion threads were examined
64 FebruaryAcademy of Management Perspectives
and summarized a few days before the virtual
meeting took place. To ensure that the virtual
meetings were productive, only those areas of
disagreement that were identified from the dis-
cussion thread were raised at the meeting.)
Ensure that all team meetings have clear writ-
ten agendas with time allocations circulated in
advance so that members know when they
should attend during a meeting.
Request that members post their progress (using
draft documents, memos, drawings, spread-
sheets, analysis results, PowerPoint slides, etc.)
on the repository linking them to project time-
lines, action item lists, and responsibility charts
prior to the meeting.
Start of Meeting Practice
Virtual team leaders often report feeling the need
to have members “reconnect” at the start of a
meeting. As is often the case, virtual team mem-
bers have only been in touch with each other
asynchronously and most of their electronic com-
munications are almost exclusively task related.
Virtual team leaders feel that it is helpful to have
team members reconnect with the “human” side
of each individual, which helps to remind each
member of their similarities, as well as provide
them “boundary objects” or common metaphors
to work from during the meeting. To reconnect,
team leaders start their meetings in various ways:
Have each member share a personal story about
an event that happened to them over the last
week.
Ask each member to share a hobby they were
working on.
Focus on major events in one or two of the
members’ lives. For example, one team member
lived in a Washington, D.C. suburb near the
2002 sniper attacks, which became the focus of
the beginning of one meeting.
During Meeting Practices
Most team leaders we interviewed find it critical
to keep members engaged throughout a meeting.
They maintain this engagement by having mem-
bers “check-in” throughout the meeting process,
sometimes using voting tools as check-in devices.
For example, one team leader used the voting tool
on the net conferencing technology to have mem-
bers vote on whether or not an issue being dis-
cussed was resolved to their satisfaction and
should continue to be discussed. Increasingly,
team leaders are using Instant Messaging to stay
checked-in during meetings and engage those not
participating actively.
End of Meeting Practices
Virtual meetings are the primary mechanism for
creating commitment toward forward movement.
Therefore, ending each meeting with a list of
action items that are then posted in the team
repository is a key practice in virtual teams. Ac-
tion items include assignments of individuals to
tasks and assignment of due dates for task com-
pletion.
In addition to action items, several team lead-
ers we interviewed use a “minutes-on-the-go”
practice, where minutes are logged during the
meeting and appear immediately on the virtual
workspace screen. The minutes are then posted to
the repository immediately after the meeting. The
minute-taking responsibility is often rotated
among members, supported by development of
norms for minute-taking. In one team, norms re-
quire that minutes be taken during the meeting on
a Word document opened and displayed in the
shared workspace for all to see. The norm also
dictates that only results of discussion (i.e., deci-
sion and rationale) be captured to reduce the
burden on the note-taker. Team members summa-
rize what should be said in the minutes, and the
minutes are posted immediately after the meeting.
Between Meeting Practices
Leaders understand that virtual team members
may easily forget that they are members of a team
when the team isn’t actually in a virtual meeting
session. Therefore, the team leaders work hard to
keep the members engaged as a team between
meetings. They use a variety of techniques in-
cluding electronic discussion threads, instant mes-
saging (e.g., to see who’s available to discuss a
problem immediately), making spontaneous an-
nouncements on the team’s website (e.g., to share
2007 65Malhotra, Majchrzak, and Rosen
some recent good news with the team), and auto-
matic notifications of recent postings to the web-
site to keep members abreast of progress of team
members.
In sum, by orchestrating virtual team meetings
carefully, virtual team leaders are able to reinforce
the team’s mission, increase team commitment
and participation, leverage the team’s collective
expertise, and reinforce the value of virtual team
membership. As one virtual team leader pointed
out, “The challenge was to command member atten-
tion and focus in an era of multi-tasking.
Monitor Team Progress Through the Use of
Technology
While all leaders monitor team progress, vir-
tual team leaders have the opportunity to
monitor progress online; the most successful
leaders we observed leveraged this opportunity.
Virtual team leaders can scrutinize asynchronous
(electronic threaded discussion and document
postings in the knowledge repository) and syn-
chronous (virtual meeting participation and In-
stant Messaging sessions) communications pat-
terns to determine who is participating in team
activities and who needs support and prompting
for further participation. Virtual team leaders can
also monitor how the communication technology
is used and offer coaching and training for those
team members who underutilize their electronic
communication and collaboration resources. This
monitoring is done in a variety of ways. Leaders
track the usage of the team’s knowledge repository
on a regular basis, emailing members who do not
contribute to or use the repository regularly. Other
leaders examine repository log data to determine
who is using the team repository and how often.
Team leaders also assign a “facilitator” to keep
track of tool usage and report problems to the
team leader. The leaders check for the possibility
of “social loafing” or “coasting” when some mem-
bers fail to meet deadlines or follow work proto-
cols. In these cases, virtual leaders waste no time
investigating problems and confronting under-
performers.
Virtual team leaders also diligently monitor
progress in the use of information technology to
support team processes as well. Virtual teams
rarely began with their teams having all the tech-
nologies in place from the onset. Instead, team
leaders instill an attitude of: “Let’s try and work
together virtually and find the tools we need to do our
job.” This attitude of experimentation means that
the teams are not unduly frustrated by failure (i.e.,
when the technology doesn’t work), accept some
responsibility to make it work (i.e., by asking
questions if they don’t understand the technology
and finding the right resources to help them), and
are interested in making something work regard-
less of how elegant or complete the technology
solution. Team leaders allow for flexibility in the
usage of information technology tools as the needs
of the team evolve, and as the technology itself
evolves. In sum, leaders closely monitor tools that
work and allow for technology evolution over
time. In the words of one team leader: “Our tech-
nology use evolved over time. Our database [of ser-
vices and clients] matured. We initially had a discus-
sion database. Then we added IM. Then we added
Change Request capability. Then we added a Call
Tracking database. Then we added an Issue Log.
Then we created a view called “Management View”
with schedule, costs spent to date and project status.
Then we added a Working Section view just for the
team. We tried videoconferencing but stopped using it
when the team did not find it useful.”
Enhance External Visibility of the Team and
its Members
Leading a virtual team requires parallel process-
ing skills. While team building requires an in-
ternal focus, virtual team leaders must espe-
cially also remain sensitive to the needs of various
external stakeholders including project sponsors,
local executives, and both internal and external
customers of the virtual team’s output. When it
comes to external (specifically local bosses of the
virtual team members) the phrase “out of sight,
out of mind” is all the more a challenge. There-
fore, leaders often develop “balanced scorecards”
for the team indicating what each manager ex-
pects from the team as a whole and from the
member who is reporting to that manager. To
develop this balanced scorecard, the virtual team
66 FebruaryAcademy of Management Perspectives
leaders work with each member’s primary local
manager to ensure that expectations for each
member are clear. Once established, the balanced
scorecard provides a relatively objective and stan-
dardized basis for the allocation of team-level re-
wards.
Virtual team leaders often have multiple peo-
ple to report to— each of the team members local
managers, as well as senior executives of the or-
ganization. The virtual team leaders we studied
used a variety of approaches for external reporting;
all, however, had the underlying goal of continu-
ously and clearly representing the “virtual work”
of their team and its members. One team leader,
for example, organized a steering committee of
managers from the various departments and client
organizations represented, and conducted formal
status briefings with this steering committee. A
virtual team in the electronics testing industry was
required to report the team’s outcomes and ac-
complishments to a steering committee. The
steering committee was designed in a way that it
had a representative (senior level executive) from
every location where there was a team member
present. This senior level executive provided the
aegis under which his/her local team member
worked on the virtual team. They were also re-
sponsible for periodically ensuring that their local
team member remained at a high motivation
level.
In an alternative approach, the team leader
expected each member to “report out” to the
sponsoring manager closest to the functional, geo-
graphical, or business unit that the individual
member represented. The choice of the approach
depends on the preferences of management, the
type of tasks the team is performing, and the
abilities of the team members. Regardless of the
approach selected, leaders often instill a norm
whereby all reports intended for managers be ap-
proved first by all team members so that they feel
a part of the report-out process.
In addition to report-outs to management, vir-
tual team leaders often find themselves in the
position of explaining to managers the value of a
member to the team. In one case, the team leader
worked with each member’s manager to create and
sign a “certificate of contribution” which clarified
how the individual’s contribution to the team
would help the manager’s own division.
Many leaders of face-to-face teams attest to the
difficulty of providing individuals and teams with
the recognition that they deserve. Recognizing
and rewarding virtual team work is even more
complex and even more important. By keeping
virtual team members in the corporate spotlight,
the rewards and recognition follow.
Ensure Individuals Benefit from Participating
in Virtual Teams
For team members to contribute, they must be-
lieve that they personally benefit from the
team. We asked team leaders how they ensured
that individuals personally benefited from the
team. Team leaders reported conducting the fol-
lowing activities:
Virtual reward ceremonies, such as having gifts
delivered to each individual and then having a
virtual party.
Starting each virtual meeting with recognition
of specific successes. A leader of a virtual team
in the high-tech industry used the practice of
giving members a “gold star” for work well done.
This award afforded the members recognition in
the organization and could be parlayed for fu-
ture promotions.
Praising a manager for having a great employee.
Team leaders often had the entire team or sub-
team brief executives (often virtually). When
an executive was pleased with the briefings, the
team leaders would suggest that the executive
inform each member’s manager about the great
work that the members were doing.
Importantly, leaders of successful virtual teams
realize that team members are often in high de-
mand by others (their local responsibilities). Re-
gardless of how much up-front negotiation occurs
over time commitments, team members generally
gravitate to those commitments that give them
the greatest benefits: in terms of intellectual
growth, visibility, and fun. Virtual team leaders
understand this and often structure team meetings
to capitalize on these benefits by including mini-
lectures on a topic related to the team’s work
2007 67Malhotra, Majchrzak, and Rosen
which might be provided by an expert, short on-
line appearances by executives giving members an
opportunity to enter into a virtual dialogue about
an issue related to the team’s work, and fun ac-
tivities such as sharing hobbies, sharing catered
lunches, Internet-based scavenger hunts, and vir-
tual celebrations.
In short, the most effective virtual team leaders
enhance the team experiences for each of their
members by ensuring that each has an opportunity
to learn, grow, contribute, and feel an integral part
of the team.
Final Words On Leadership of Virtual Teams
We noted at the onset that leading a virtual
team requires all the leadership and project
management skills needed for leading a col-
located team and more. As one of the team leaders
we spoke with said: “Synchronizing the efforts of a
geographically, culturally, and technically diverse vir-
tual team does not happen magically. ...My first
priority is to build the kinds of working relationships
where team members will freely share knowledge,
leverage members’ collective expertise, anticipate each
others’ actions, and feel confident that all team mem-
bers are making a full-fledged contribution to the
team’s success.”
Virtual team leaders must overcome coordina-
tion barriers associated with working across dis-
tance and time, cross cultural and language barri-
ers, trust and team cohesion barriers created when
team members have very limited opportunities to
identify common values, and numerous other
challenges associated with virtual work. Our vir-
tual team leaders emphasized the additional chal-
lenges of fighting for each team member’s com-
mitment to the virtual project, given the local
demands for their special expertise.
In addition, virtual team leaders have to over-
come member feelings of isolation, build team
cohesion, establish norms of collaboration and
knowledge sharing, and motivate team members
to make a major commitment to the team’s mis-
sion. To do so required the development of new
leadership skills. As one virtual team leader noted,
I must be a diplomat to help teams overcome cultural
differences, an ambassador to keep sponsors around
the world updated on the team’s progress, a psychol-
ogist to provide a variety of rewards to a diverse and
often isolated group of team members, an executive, a
coach, and a role model all at the same time.” An-
other noted, “Leadership in my book comes down to
communication. But communicating in person and
communicating electronically are not the same. It is
darn hard to motivate and inspire from long distance.
Even telephone conversations fall short of actual meet-
ings. So, for me to lead virtually, I have to learn to be
clear and concise, but also to communicate a passion
for the assignment and a caring for my people. Com-
municating virtually is a work in progress for me.”
Given the challenges associated with leading a
virtual project team, the payoffs need to be sub-
stantial for an organization to embrace this rela-
tively new way of working. Because virtual teams
have access to specialized expertise across geo-
graphical boundaries, they are poised to develop
better-informed and more creative solutions to
complex, often global organizational problems.
For instance, one of the teams in our sample was
developing collaborative technologies that would
be used in different regions of Europe. By includ-
ing team members from 15 European countries,
the team was able to create a solution that was
customized for the different regions, yet had 70%
commonality. This “think global, act local” solu-
tion reflects the creative capacity of virtual teams.
When firms become virtual, the need to
change work and leadership practices is impera-
tive. In the years ahead, we would expect greater
organizational efforts to prepare future leaders of
virtual teams. Recent research indicates that only
a small number of organizations have created spe-
cialized training programs to prepare virtual team
leaders and virtual team members (Rosen, Furst,
& Blackburn, 2006). Among those organizations
that have training programs in place, an even
smaller number rate them as effective. And, some
organizations report that while virtual team train-
ing is available, it is often ignored.
Similarly, we would expect business schools to
focus more on developing the critical competen-
cies needed to lead project teams from a distance.
For example, in the context of a project manage-
ment course, students could be assigned to work
virtually with other students taking similar courses
at universities in various parts of the world. The
68 FebruaryAcademy of Management Perspectives
experience of working cross-culturally and virtu-
ally introduces students to both the potential and
the challenges of working in virtual teams. In-
structors can use these assignments to coach teams
at the “teachable moments” when they encounter
project management issues.
The adage that “forewarned is forearmed” rings
particularly true when it comes to virtual leader-
ship and management. Organizations that appre-
ciate the value in developing virtual team leaders
are likely to see substantial benefits from their
investments.
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Appendix A: Research and Data Collection
Methodology
In order to understand the leadership practices in suc-
cessful virtual teams we collected data in two phases. In the
first phase, we followed one virtual team at Boeing-Rocket-
dyne through its life cycle (from inception to project com-
pletion) (see Jarvenpaa, Shaw, & Staples, 2004). We inter-
viewed the team members and leaders at different points in
the life-cycle and attended the virtual meetings of the vir-
tual teams to observe leadership practices “in-action.”
In the second phase, we solicited participation from
several hundred virtual teams and screened them based on
stringent criteria to determine whether they fit our notion of
virtual teams. Over the course of six months we identified
54 “successful” virtual teams from the several hundred teams
that responded to our call. These were categorized as suc-
cessful based on the independent assessment of an executive
familiar with the team. Executives who were knowledgeable
about the team but were not members of the team were
asked to complete a short ten-item assessment of the team’s
outputs to-date, including assessments of the team’s effi-
ciency, quality of innovations, adherence to schedule and
budget, and work excellence.
The 54 virtual teams that were identified represented 33
different companies from 14 different industries. The teams
in the study represented a range of outputs for which they
were responsible: new product development, pure research
and development, best practice identification, knowledge
management, information systems support, mergers, strategy
development, new technology development, development
of employee training, and benchmarking analysis.
The teams ranged in size from a low of 2 (not including
the team leader) to a high of 50, with the teams having 12
members on average. Among the teams, 43% were tasked
with innovation-oriented tasks while 33% were involved in
2007 69Malhotra, Majchrzak, and Rosen
operational services tasks. Teams were at diverse phases of
their life-cycles, with 25% already completing their tasks
and 20% just starting. Half of the teams included more than
one company and more than 50% included more than one
function. Finally, 75% of the teams included members from
more than one national culture, with 60% including mem-
bers at 3 or more time zones apart or with different native
languages.
To collect data on the teams, we first interviewed
each team leader. The interviews, which lasted about 40 to
60 minutes, addressed such questions as: the purpose of
the team; why it was structured as a distributed team; what
practices the leader established in the team for cohesiveness,
trust-building, and shared understanding; any adjustments
made to the team during its lifecycle; and the use of
technology by the team. Team members were contacted
(either by us directly or by the team leader) and asked to
complete a web-based survey that we prepared. We guaran-
teed confidentiality of all responses. In all, 269 individuals
from 54 teams completed our survey. Members were asked
about the intellectual capital they had acquired on the team
and their views of such team management issues as trust,
leadership, cohesiveness, and personal benefits from the
team.
70 FebruaryAcademy of Management Perspectives
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