Culture Leadership Teamwork

When did my team become virtual?

So, you’re getting work done with a group of people. If you’re communicating using a private Facebook group or sharing numbers on a Google Docs spreadsheet, you may have just wandered into virtual territory.

When does a conventional team become a distributed virtual team?

Twitter has become the new watercooler. Four decades of research by MIT professor Tom Allen indicate that geographic separation begins to significantly influence member-to-member interactions with distances as small as 50 feet.[1] The idea of conventional, colocated team members who sit within shouting distance of one another for 8 hours each day is rapidly going the way of the hard-wired telephone and the CD-ROM. Also, many core business processes demand involvement from people working in different parts of the organization. Rarely do all these people report to the same boss, yet these virtual teams are expected to deliver real work. In a global work environment, it is not uncommon for an employee to participate on two or more distributed teams or workgroups simultaneously. Teammates based in different countries often know more current personal information about each other via social networking sites than they do about their co-workers in a department one floor above them.

Cultural differences also play a significant role in the complexity of distributed teams. These differences are frequently overlooked, as discussions tend to focus on the technology rather than on value differences and cross-cultural barriers. These pressures exert extra weight in Christian missions because of our assumptions that we share the same core values and because we expect everyone to “be nice.” Due to space limitations we cannot explore all the cultural implications here, but will simply reflect some counsel from James Plueddemann:

For God’s people to work together effectively, implicit assumptions about leadership need to be made explicit. They must be evaluated in light of sound social science research and biblical principles. The church in the North and South, the East and West acts out of unconscious and often confusing assumptions about leadership. We must appreciate the differences and challenge some of the misconceptions in order to work together as the worldwide body of Christ.[2]

Virtual teams seeking long-term effectiveness will learn how to manage cultural diversity by explicitly talking about differences such as high and low power-distance cultures, high and low context cultures, individualistic and collectivist cultures, linear and holistic cultures, and whether we prefer sushi or Subway for lunch.

Differences Between Conventional, Virtual and Global Teams[3]

Type of Team Spatial Distance Communications Member Cultures Leader Challenge
Conventional Colocated Face-to-face Similar High
Virtual Scattered Mediated Similar or Different Higher
Global Widely scattered Mediated Very Different Very High (!)


Virtual teams can amplify the normal problems most colocated teams face. For instance, 600 professionals who manage or work on virtual teams reported that common problems such as not following through on commitments, questioning team decisions, backbiting and avoidance of conflict occur far more frequently on virtual teams.[4]

Distributed virtual teaming supports the trend in institutions and organizations seeking to become more responsive to today’s social media environment. In a June 2011 blog post, John Kotter highlights the creative tension necessary for today’s organization to maintain a good balance between hierarchy (whose strengths are standardization, stability, maintenance and optimization) and network (whose strengths are seizing opportunity, rapid knowledge and expertise acquisition, and adaptability).

If you’re serving on a virtual or global team, how are you making it easier for your team leader to lead well? 


[1] Lipnack, Jessica, and Jeffrey Stamps. Virtual Teams: People Working across Boundaries with Technology. 2nd ed. (New York: Wiley, 2000) 19-21.

[2] Jim Plueddemann, Leading across Cultures: Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2009), 21.

[3] Table adapted from Daft, Richard L., and Patricia Lane. The Leadership Experience. Vol. 4th. Mason, Ohio: Thomson/South-Western, 2008, 309.

[4] Joseph Grenny, “Virtual Teams Keep People Connected,” Leadership Excellence, May 2010.

By Ken

Dr. Ken Cochrum (DMin, Bethel University) is Vice President of Global Digital Strategies at Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) in Orlando, Florida. An avid cyclist and aspiring guitarist, he also holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from The University of Texas and a Masters of Arts in Biblical Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary. He recently co-founded, a movement passionate about connecting people to Jesus using digital strategies. He previously served as vice president of Cru’s student-led movements worldwide. He and his wife Ann spent 13 years in East Asia where they raised their two children. Ken blogs regularly at

7 replies on “When did my team become virtual?”

This is a helpful and clear statement of the realities we face. However, you are a guy who leads and has led numerous virtual teams so I’d love to hear some specific tips and counsel from you based on what you’ve learned. I’m especially interested in the past several years as social media has spiked upward. Thanks!

@Andy: great to see you here, brother! It’s been awhile. You’re also leading in this kind of context, so I know you have counsel to offer. This is only the second post in a series, so we’ll get tactical here pretty soon. Thanks.

I love learning about the topic of virtual teams, and I’ve definitely been in the school of hard knocks on this one for the last several years. I definitely agree that leading global multi-cultural virtual teams results in a “very high” leader challenge! Here are a few ideas off the top of my (balding) head related to virtual teams functioning well, which does ultimately help the team leader a lot.

1. Establish a strong foundation of relationship and trust by having initial (and occasional ongoing) face-to-face meetings with your virtual team. Solid relationship and trust are crucial to help overcome the inevitable miscommunications that happen over a distance, emails and time. If the team is a short term work group, this might not be possible, but you can still do initial relationship building over a video call by taking time to have be share about themselves, strengths, working style, passions, vision for the project, etc.

2. Keep priorities and action points visible to all and promote group accountability. We use a google doc action point list that we look back at frequently and have everyone update progress on it themselves. Leveraging shared document technology like Google docs to help teams communicate and focus would be a great separate topic to discuss related to virtual teams!

3. Test your meeting technology well before the meeting. We have wasted WAY too much time on IT issues at the start of meetings, which could have been worked out by just 2-3 people in advanced if we’d tested the technology well or trained all participants and made sure they were setup. Starting a meeting with tech problems can easily put a wet blanket on the mood and make people feel like your meetings are a waste of time. I suggest using a video solution if at all possible as I find that video increases participant engagement a lot.

4. Involve all participants in the meetings. If all participants are facilitating at least one part of the meeting, I find they will be more engaged overall. In addition to facilitating discussions, participants can be assigned a “meeting role,” such as taking notes, action point recorder, norms enforcer, or time keeper. Related tip: The action point recorder can type action points directly into your online shared document and then everyone can review, clarify and confirm those action points at the end of the meeting. Also, we have a bi-lingual team and take meeting notes in the 2 languages simultaneously. That allows someone who gets lost to quickly read up in their mother tongue.

More are coming to mind, but I guess this turned into a separate blog post instead of a comment…but there you have it! Thanks Ken!

@Eric: Big huge “ditto” on your advice! The voice of experience speaking loud and clear through your comments. Thanks for offering such practical tips.

Thanks for reposting this. Good helpful input. Also worth to see Eric’s comments.

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