Innovating with Virtual Teams

Innovating with Virtual Teams February 7, 2013

Distance matters. An effective leader who has regular face-to-face contact with employees might not be as effective in cyberspace. Good conventional leadership skills are necessary, but not sufficient to lead others at a distance. When you add “leading innovation” into the mix, you can be at a real disadvantage leading virtually. Innovation is an essential competitive advantage for companies and requires collaboration. Getting people to collaborate, not to mention innovate, is especially challenging when people are at a distance from each other – physically, socially, and culturally across time zones.

The ability to foster innovation is one of the top characteristics of leaders, both today and, especially, in the future. Furthermore, collaboration is key in developing an innovative environment. Yet, there is evidence that suggests that innovation and working virtually stand at odds with each other. A study on “virtual distance” and innovation as applied to virtual teams at 17 organizations indicates that virtual distance has a significant and negative relationship to innovation (Lojeski, Reilly, & Dominick, 2006). “Virtual distance” in this study was defined as both perceived and physical distance. What seems to matter here is the perception of distance.

Researchers Lynda Gratton and Tamara Erickson (2007) found that collaboration diminishes as teams became more virtual unless the organization took specific measures to establish a “collaborative culture.” Furthermore, this study concludes that members of a team are more likely to collaborate if they see themselves as more alike. This is a conundrum since innovation usually increases when the team composition is more diverse. So how do you get virtual team members to collaborate and innovate together?

First, leaders need to foster an environment of collaboration by modeling it and by recognizing others who model cooperation. If you can’t be present in the same place as the team, find ways to show collaboration such as telling company stories about collaboration in a podcast, using various means to see each other through Skype or Google+ hangout, demonstrating it on calls and making time to “build community” through activities that allow team members to get to know each other. This can be done on line, on calls and, if possible, in person on occasion. You might also want to develop a communications plan, one that reflects the results you expect from the team and how you expect team members to treat each other. Remember to communicate your plan to all and get their input and buy-in.

Innovative environments promote an open approach where people feel free to share new ideas and take risks. Setting a specific time for brainstorming meetings and sharing what has worked and what hasn’t can make a big difference in innovation and relationship building. One of the leaders we interviewed marveled at the difference just changing the agenda made in leading virtually and innovating. When people on a conference call knew that there would be no criticism for “off the wall” ideas, a special synergy was created. The team also knew that other times would be reserved for analyzing the best courses of action and critiquing alternatives.

Ultimately teams that strive for role clarity and give team members latitude on how they will accomplish the agreed upon objectives set the atmosphere for innovation to occur.

Here are some actions you can take to be a better virtual leader:

  • Virtual leaders need to be able to use available technologies well. Technologies are, after all, a double-edged sword. Video conferences, online chats, instant messages, polling, wikis, e-mail, mobile devices, the use of avatars and other forms of communication can be powerful tools.
  • Draft a virtual team communications plan, one that reflects the results you expect from the team, and ideas on how you expect team members to treat each other.
  • Providing ongoing feedback can be more difficult in a virtual environment, develop a calendar for regular coaching and performance feedback.
  • Interview each team member one on one to get to know them and their motivations. When it’s time to recognize a job well done, you will be able to personalize the recognition.
  • Build trust the tried-and-true way – by showing consistency and doing what they promise they’ll do.
  • Because team members within the same culture and across cultures have different communication styles and needs, virtual leaders might also want to use a communication style assessment that gives the team members feedback on how they like to communicate and how they like to be communicated with. For more info on this, click here.
  • Designate a specific time to focus on innovation during meetings and then implement new ideas in real time.


Gratton, L. & Erickson, T.J. (2007). Ways to Build Collaborative Teams. Harvard Business Review, February, 101-109.

Lojeski, K.S., Reilly, R., & Dominick, P. (2006). The role of virtual distance in innovation and success. Proceedings of the 39th Hawaii International Conference of Systems Sciences.