Best Practices for Managing Virtual Teams

By Scott Klososky

Technologist and futurist Scott Klososky has created and sold numerous tech companies, and has led virtual teams for years. We're fortunate that he shares his insights with us here.

Without a lot of planning, many organizations are now deep into working in ways that were impossible just 20 years ago. Thanks to the intersection of new technologies that allow for nearly free communication, and the desire to assemble teams that include people either working from home, or in a distant land, we now have an explosion of virtual teams. 

It is too late to put this genie back in the bottle. Once people found out they could work from home, or that companies could contract with specialists from around the world without moving them to the home office, the virtual workplace movement was on. Where it once would have seemed strange to have a boss working at a different location, we now have people that have never even met their direct reports in person.  We have team members that have never met, and further, are fine with that. Scott Klososky

And no, this trend is not even close to running its course.  The workforce will continue to move to a more flexible system where teams will be spun up and wound down at faster rates.  Think new Tuckman Model: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, Adjourning, Reforming, over and over again for your whole career.
A natural outgrowth of creating virtual teams is the need for leaders to manage them, and this is where things get difficult.  The dynamics of leading a virtual team are very different than leading a team of people who see each other every day.  By nature, humans are not as proficient at extending trust, or communicating well when we are separated by distance.  This is why a recent Harvard study found that employees who work virtually have 253% more workplace issues.  In other words, we have a trend that got out in front of our ability to manage it well.
After spending years of leading virtual teams across a few companies, and subsequently studying the best practices of others who comment in this area, I have created my top list of seven best practices to apply when leading a virtual team.
  • Generational Awareness 

    There are four generations in the work place, and they adapt to virtual teams in very different ways.  They also bring strengths and weaknesses that a virtual leader must be concerned with. 
A simple example would be the comparison of the Traditional Generation and Gen Y.  At one end of the spectrum you have an older worker with a great amount of discretion and wisdom.  They have lots of knowledge about the industry and the organization. They also will not be very quick to adapt to the technology tools needed to communicate with the rest of the team. A Gen Y worker will have an awesome ability to use the technology tools, but will lack all of the above-mentioned traits that took years for a Traditional to build. So the savvy virtual leader will create a recipe of different generations and then give out assignments in ways that leverage the strengths of each generation.

  • Personalities 

    Another critical best practice is to evaluate the personality profiles of the virtual team members.  The concern is not that any specific personality trait is good or bad; they all just tend to require a different set of skills for leadership.  

For example, extroverts tend to need lots of human interaction to get energy.  If you stick an extrovert at their home for days in a row with no interaction except email, they will wither.  An introvert will work great all alone, but will often fail to communicate with others at a high level.  

With every trait, there are strengths and weaknesses that, if not managed, will result in a remote worker just quitting on you in spirit.  And the deadly thing is you may not know this has happened for months.

  • Communication Rules 

    We all know by this point that email and other electronic communication methods can sometimes lead to miscommunication. A virtual leader must sort out two levels of guidelines.  

The first concerns the tools the team is going to use, the second is how they will use these tools.  The critical word here is RHYTHM.  Remote workers need to be secure that there is an agreed upon rhythm for when meetings happen, and how discussions are spun up. This includes areas like what communications are best used on which technologies, and what are the accepted ways to discuss things publicly versus privately.  It is a huge mistake to just let virtual teams communication patterns become a free for all where everyone does what they think is best.

  • Assigning Tasks

    In the virtual world, you must assign tasks in different ways. You will find that breaking tasks up into smaller pieces with more rapid deadlines will solve a few common problems of the virtual workplace.  If you assign a large project all in one piece, you may have trouble keeping up with the progress at any given point.  By assigning it in smaller pieces, you will find that you can rest assured that the work is getting done on a regular basis.  The other advantage is that it lets you recognize success more often, which leads us to… 

  • Recognizing Success 

    One aspect of virtual teams that can be deadly: Workers who do not have the human interaction of their leaders will often assume the worst, or simply wither away without knowing if they are doing a good job.  Without verbal and non-verbal feedback on a daily basis, they get uncomfortable. So as a manager, you must find ways to recognize success at least twice as often and more publicly than normal. Tying into how you assign tasks: The shorter the deadline, the more often you can give feedback. 

  • Technology Plumbing 

    As a manager of a remote workforce, you need to be able to do two critical things well. The first is to communicate regularly and personally with your people.  The second is to have methods of holding them accountable for getting work done when you cannot see them doing it.  Technology has wonderful tools to facilitate both of these. 

The software systems that you put in place are critical.  It is important to have a software platform that:

    • Facilitates team communication
    • Stores files and knowledge, and
    • Acts as distributor of important information

    The software must also be scaled to the size of the team.  It is possible to have something too complex for a small team, and under-featured for a large team.  Hundreds of new Web 2.0 tools can facilitate virtual work environments. The challenge is not finding them; it is assembling them into the best digital plumbing for the specific virtual team.  

  • Skill Sourcing


A new best practice that is becoming important is the ability to skill source the skills that you need on a virtual team, particularly if they do not exist in your organization.  There are lots of Web-based resources for finding freelancers with very specific skills, and rating systems to help you know the quality of work this person might bring to the your virtual team.  Imagine a world where you take on a project, put together a couple of people from your organization, and then fill in five other positions from searches on the Web.  This will be the norm before long.

The bottom line is that leading virtual teams is very different than leading teams that can engage in person each day.  If you cannot discern the differences as described above, you will quickly learn that not only will your virtual team perform at a sub-par level, life will also be filled with an endless stream of dealing with HR issues instead of more productive fare.

Learn more about Scott Klososky's keynotes, workshops and consulting at