Leading Virtual Teams

>> The Need for Team Operating Agreements

Members of international virtual teams will have very different expectations regarding just about every aspect of inter-team working. People make subconscious assumptions about even the most basic areas of team-working.

Due to the cultural differences which exist within the team, there are no universally recognized ‘norms’. The virtual team leader, therefore, needs to create these group ‘norms’ by way of a Team Operating Agreement – or mutually agreed standards to which the group will operate together.

It could be said that the key role of a Global Virtual Team Leader is to get the ‘Team Operating Agreement’ in place because only by ensuring efficient inter-team working can the team goals be achieved.

Unfortunately, experience (and research) shows that many virtual team leaders prefer to ignore such issues – which they consider soft and non-commercial. Leaders often prefer to concentrate on what they consider to be the harder disciplines – be they financial controls, technical excellence or whatever the leader personally feels to be of most immediate importance.

Simply put, a Team Operating Agreement (TOA) is a set of rules by which all members of the Global Virtual Team agree they will be bound. The Team Operating Agreement sets the framework which will guide the day-to-day interaction of all team members.

It is best if this Team Operating Agreement is agreed right at the beginning of the life of a team and should form one of the core elements of any kick-off meeting (but it is never too late in the life of a team to introduce a Team Operating Agreement.)

The Team Operating Agreement should be in the form of a written document which is disseminated to all team members and which can, therefore, be referred back to as a reference document at any time during the life of the team.

A Team Operating Agreement is not necessarily a static thing and may benefit from changes, modifications and the introduction of new ideas which will improve poorly functioning areas of team interaction. The Global Virtual Leader should always be alive to the possibility of improvement.

There is no definitive answer to what a Team Operating Agreement should include or look like as all teams and projects will be slightly different.

It is, however, possible to state a minimum requirement for a workable Team Operating Agreement – to which specific additions can be made to suit particular needs.

As a minimum, any Team Operating Agreement should include an agreed understanding on:

  • The role of the team leader
  • The team leader’s expectation of each team member
  • The role and responsibilities of each individual team member
  • The goals of the team
  • Review processes on team goals
  • The decision-making process
  • Inter-team communication
  • Team language
  • The relevant use of voice and email communication
  • Appraisal criteria
  • Escalation policies
  • Teleconference etiquette
  • Meeting preparation and participation

Many additional items can be added to this list on a case-by-case, team-by-team basis but this list is a good starting point and can be used as a check-list on future occasions.

A pre-requisite to ensuring buy-in to such a Team Operating Agreement is that all virtual team members recognize and accept the existence of culturally different approaches within the team. Everybody needs to accept that their own ‘norm’ is not necessarily the correct approach but merely one valid approach amongst many valid approaches. If this level of cultural awareness does not exist within the team, it is the responsibility of the Global Team Leader to develop it.

Naturally, the worst thing that can happen is when the team leader gives the impression that this Team Operating Agreement has to be exactly the same as his or her own ‘normal’ approach. Everybody in the team needs to be flexible and willing to adapt their own style – especially the team leader!

Latest version updated 23rd March 2017

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