Startup Lessons Learned: 9 Ways to Improve Virtual Teams in 2015

Virtual Team Building Belle Communications Kate Finley

This post is part of my Startup Lessons Learned series, in which I share questions, insights and key learnings from starting a business and building a team.

Leading and managing teams is an ongoing work in progress. If you lead a team, you know that there really isn’t a point where you can sit back and say, “Hey this looks great so I think I’ll take a break for a few weeks.” If you lead a team, you know that statement is not only unwise, it’s also hilarious.

Instead, we’re reading books on leadership, listening to podcasts, perusing business magazines and the leading blogs all for the latest insight into how to build and strengthen our teams. It’s a continual process.

Questions to Consider as We Improve Virtual Teams

Add to this task of leadership a virtual team and your goals and outcomes begin to blur as you find yourself asking questions such as:

  • Do traditional leadership approaches and team building tactics apply to virtual teams?
  • How can I keep team members engaged individually and with each other despite physical distance?
  • How can I foster trust for leadership and team members?
  • How can I gauge if team members are challenged enough since I can’t see what they’re doing?
  • Are there processes and best practices that we should implement differently since we’re virtual? If so, which ones and why?
  • How do I empower virtual team members to take leadership roles and build into the rest of the team?
  • What’s the optimal virtual team size? What should I do if I exceed it?
  • How many in-person meetings should we hold each year? Do we need them at all?
  • Am I doing things as a leader that are hurting or hindering the success of our virtual team?
  • How do we add “just for fun” elements to build camaraderie?

These are just some of the questions that come up when you’re leading a virtual team. As with any team, it’s essential to have the right leadership in place to best empower your team to grow and to strengthen the team as a whole.

Startup Lessons Learned: 9 Ways to Improve Virtual Teams in 2015

Harvard Business Review’s December issue has an article titled, “Managing Yourself: Getting Virtual Teams Right“, which addresses the unique challenges of leading a virtual team and provides several best practices to address each. Below are some key points I found most relevant as a virtual team leader.

  1. Keep within optimal team size.
    According to research, 10 is the max number of virtual team members to be included in a group. Going over 10 team members can encourage “social loafing” and dramatically decreased productivity.
  2. Foster community early and often. 
    A great way to do this is to have a standard onboarding process in place, which can be similar to that of a traditional workplace by pairing new team members with mentors. You can assign a current team member to be a “go-to” for the new team member to help answer questions and show the ropes. Some other ideas include brief check-ins prior to conference calls and taking time to show the team your physical office space over video.
  3. Encourage and advocate for open communication.
    You must be an advocate for communication and encourage team members to speak their opinions in a constructive, receptive environment. Establish ground rules for sharing to ensure that everyone gets to voice their opinion. As with any group it can be easy to let a one team member dominate the conversation while other team members listen or are overlooked. This can be especially difficult with virtual teams due to the lack of side-conversations or seeing a team member’s reaction after a conference call. Video calls can really help here.
  4. Be clear with goals and guidelines.
    This is a must. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve wondered why I hadn’t received a report on a project that I had assigned only to find that I wasn’t as clear as I thought I had been on the deadline and process. You must communicate goals, guidelines and timelines in a way that is clear to your team. When you’re functioning within a virtual team, it’s easier to make assumptions so be diligent about clearly assigning tasks and requesting the type and frequency of status updates. We use Producteev to help manage to-do reporting and it has really helped our team with this challenge.
  5. Make the most of team gatherings and prohibit multi-tasking.
    To help make the most of team time together, provide an agenda prior to the meeting and use video whenever possible to ensure everyone is engaged. To help train your team to keep from multi-tasking, ask that they close all projects and email before beginning the meeting.
  6. Look for ways to have fun and build camaraderie. 
    We do this through weekly team hangout time and daily touchpoints via video. We’ve danced on video together, too. One thing I think we could do a better job of is celebrating success, which I address in point 8.
  7. Get together IRL.
    Last year I gathered everyone together for several days where we attended a conference, shared a workspace and did fun activities like touring Columbus on segways. This year the plan is to have two in-person times as a team. One will most likely be here in Columbus and the other will be a purely fun hangout most likely on the beach. Gathering together IRL (in real life) provides a great opportunity to share physical experiences and learn together beyond the virtual environment. This can really build trust and camaraderie within your virtual team.
  8. Celebrate milestones.
    This is an area that I’m working to improve in 2015. I want to see us take time to not only acknowledge the small victories like completing a challenging project or securing national coverage for a client but also taking time to blare some music, get silly and celebrate the amazing things we’ve accomplished as a whole. Look for opportunities to celebrate big and small achievements. Stop the mayhem for a couple minutes, pull the team together on video and recognize the success.
  9. Make the most of technology by enlisting the right tools for your team.
    We share a series every week called Toolkit Tuesday. In it, we share the tech and tools we are experimenting with as a team to make virtual life easier. When you’re managing a virtual team, you have to be willing to look for the best tools to streamline processes, manage projects and keep the lines of communication clear. We currently use virtual team tools: Basecamp, Convo and Producteev.


Overall, I think the tendency is to see virtual teams as being potentially less effective than in-person teams due to barriers of geography and in-person contact. Although virtual teams do present unique challenges and require different approaches to those of traditional teams, studies indicate that a well-managed virtual team can, in fact, outperform those that share office space.

Keep these points in mind as you look toward growing and building your virtual team in 2015 and tell me about your virtual team in the comments below.

Kate Finley

Founder + CEO of Belle
Currently thriving in Columbus OH