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Enhancing Role Clarity in Virtual Teams

When virtual team members are separated by time and space, the clarity of team members’ roles and expectations may decline by as much as 62 percent. Given the decrease in role clarity, it is clear why virtual team leaders must be intentional and specific when assigning roles to team members. Co-located teams that transition to virtual teams must also shift their way of communicating.

Role clarity is particularly crucial for teams with high reliance. Reliance describes the level of interdependence among team members for completing work tasks, products or services. Teams with higher reliance require higher levels of role clarity, trust and communication. The more that team members must rely on one another to achieve results, the greater the need for alignment behind the team’s purpose.

Partners in Development recommends a virtual team operating agreement (TOA), which addresses critical issues concerning how virtual team members collaborate and interact to achieve optimal performance and cohesion. The TOA highlights the roles of each virtual team member, states how the team will make decisions and communicate, sets time frames for completion of activities, and strengthens trust among virtual team members.

The agreement can be formal or informal, and it should account for geographical, cultural, and time zone differences between team members. These protocols lay the foundation for the development of trust among members of the virtual team.

Here’s a Tip:

There are two types of trust—cognitive and emotional. Cognitive trust is based on logic. It develops from assessments we make about one another’s perceived integrity and ability. Cognitive trust is based on what we call the Four Cs—Credibility, Consistency, Communication, and Consideration. The TOA serves as a means to discuss and agree on how team members define and demonstrate the Four Cs. TOAs typically contain team member agreements such as the following examples.

  • Team members will keep each other informed through progress updates, sharing relevant information, and genuine concern for other team members.
  • We check e-mails at least twice a day. E-mail will be used primarily for one-on-one or small group communication. Respond to e-mail within 24 hours.
  • Meeting schedule—we will rotate times for meetings and webconferences to accommodate time zone differences whenever possible.
  • During each meeting, a “parking lot” will be used to record topics that require discussion at a later date.
  • Respond to requests for information within 24 hours of receiving.
  • Honor each other’s backgrounds and experiences; seek to understand the other person’s perspective before offering your own. When a conflict occurs, team members will first attempt to resolve the issue directly.

When team members share their perspectives and agree on how they will work together, cognitive trust grows and the team prospers.

In our next Tip of the Month, I’ll share ways to build emotional trust among global team members.

For more information about ways to boost the performance of your diverse teams, go to my book, Literally Virtually: Making Virtual Teams Work.

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