July 20, 2024


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Virtual Team Leadership: Concept of Operations (CONOPS) for the 21st Century

8 min read

Executive Summary

One of the critical enablers of our future Navy will be the ability to fully incorporate Virtual Teams (VT) in all warfare and process applications. To capitalize on virtual team technologies and processes will require total coordination across all business and warfare areas within the Navy. Charles Wardell (1998), a writer for the Harvard Business School newsletter, asserts “a company’s ability to seize an opportunity often depends on how fast it can field a team of talented individuals, wherever they may be. That puts a big premium on the skills of virtual management.” As a result of globalization, the information age, and excessive travel expenses, many of our civilian counterparts now work in “virtual teams” that transcend distance, time zones, and organizational boundaries. Virtual teams have evolved as a way to make working across continents and countries an easy, practical way to achieve superior results– people must no longer be co-located, or in the same place, in order to work together.

Background Discussion

Don’t be misled by the word “virtual”. A virtual team is a real team. The people are real and the work is real. The word virtual refers to a workspace that, for the most part, is created through communication that is not face-to-face such as e-mail, voice mail, telephone, groupware, or videoconferencing. Many commands in the U. S. Navy currently use virtual teams for planning teams, various working groups, and distance support. The Navy supports these teams with the required expertise without imposing stringent travel requirements on the schedule or the budget. Virtual teams have enabled commands such as the Naval Undersea Warfare Command (NUWC) to offer global services to the Naval Submarine Force. “In response to a request for contingency planning for Operation Iraqi Freedom, NUWC implemented 24/7 chat capability over the Secret Internet Protocol Network. NUWC subsystem experts supported exercises in working both real and simulated problems, while allowing Theater Commanders and platforms to train in using the capability and to exchange guidance prior to the conflict (Iriy 2004).” However, there is no policy or guidance regarding planning, procedures, or responsibilities for virtual teams.

The Benefits of a Virtual Team

Virtual teams are changing the face of every operation in the public and private sectors: manufacturing, food, banking, finance, publishing, government, transportation, pharmaceuticals, aerospace, education, health care, and advertising. Mahlon Apgar, author of Harvard Business Review’s article The Alternative Workplace, describes the benefits and challenges of alternative workplace programs. “AT&T, IBM, American Express, and the U.S. Army are saving money and increasing productivity by allowing employees to work in alternative workplaces, most often at home.” What motivates managers to examine how people spend their time at the office and where else they might do their work? Among the potential benefits for, as explained by Jack Nilles (1998), are increased employee effectiveness, increase in organizational effectiveness, reduced costs, and an edge in vying for and keeping talented employees (p. 155 – 159).

The Challenge for Leaders of Virtual Teams

There is a dark side to the autonomy and flexibility of the virtual workplace: the remoteness felt by some employees when leaders fail to keep people connected. The changing structure of organizations, the growth of alliances and joint ventures between organizations, and the changing nature of work itself call for new approaches to leadership. For example, the ability to make tradeoffs between people, resources, money, and deadlines—often causing short-term pain for the sake of long-term benefit—remains a vital element of effective leadership. They have less to do with formal authority and the power to control or command, and more to do with using influence—especially communications skills, conflict-resolution skills, as well as motivational skills—to keep groups of people aligned with an overarching purpose you have established.

While basic management skills still apply, the twist is developing shared practices that can make ‘work’ visible to team members in different locations. Add to this diversity the fact that people are not together physically—and may not even be in the same time zone. Their immediate surroundings and other commitments can demand their attention. Their personal priorities differ greatly. Yet they must come together across space and, often, time to form a team. Apgar (2000) provides advice on launching an “alternative workplace” program by emphasizing the importance of planning and communication.

Additional challenges

• How to get and keep everyone involved

• Managing the technology while concentrating on the project

• Facilitator skills-they may be great in traditional environments but those skill will not always transfer to a virtual environment

Skills for the Virtual Team Leader

Why does the virtual team environment require more leadership skills than a traditional co-located team? “We like to say that all management problems are magnified by distance. It’s difficult, for example, to motivate, correct poor performance, and communicate effectively even under the best of circumstances. But doing this face-to-face is much easier than doing it via teleconference or email (K. Fisher Personal communication September 29, 2005).” Effective distance managers demonstrate certain basic characteristics such as effective communication skills. However, after interviewing a number of naval personnel that telecommute or have worked on virtual teams, there are several attributes that contribute to effective virtual team leadership:

• Clear Understanding of Organizational Goals – Tie in virtual team’s work to important organizational values and objectives. Johnson (2001) maintains that “the team has to feel connected to the important business drivers. Organizational mission, goals, and communication channels are the elements which provide critical links between teams and their organization (p. 131).”

• Results Oriented – Focus on results, schedules, and budgets. The virtual team management requires a high degree of organization and discipline. Fisher (2001) asserts that “the results catalyst helps the team improve performance without resorting to authoritarian methods, manages by principle rather than by policy, and uses boundaries rather than directives (p. 11);”

• Facilitator – Facilitate meetings using different forms of media (e.g. teleconference, web-conference and video-conference.) Fisher (2001) states that the facilitator “brings together the necessary tools, information, and resources for the team to get the job done, and facilitates group efforts (p. 12).” Running a meeting face-to-face is one thing, because you can see all the participants and their reactions; it becomes a bit more complex when the communication is principally electronic.

• Superior Communications Skills – There must be continuous effective communications (i.e. clearly, appropriately and frequently). “Distance Managers are effective communicators who can solve problems, make decisions, and coordinate complicated tasks with others via technology (K. Fisher Personal communication September 29, 2005).”

• Coach and mentor team members virtually – “Distance leaders know how to focus their teams, provide mission and task clarity, and use metrics to help teams gauge their progress and effectiveness with minimal supervisory oversight (K. Fisher Personal communication September 29, 2005).” Coaching ‘live’ is a lot easier when you can see visual clues as to the person’s understanding and comfort.

• Technical proficiency – It is imperative that the tools don’t get in the way of smooth communications. “Distance leaders know the strengths and weaknesses of each communication technology and use them all effectively. They share this knowledge with their teams (K. Fisher Personal communication September 29, 2005).”

• Cultivate Relationships – It is important that those in locations different from the leader do not feel ‘out of the loop’, or at a disadvantage when it comes to communication, decision-making etc. “The leader has to continually nurture relationships with stakeholders to offset the out of sight; out of mind syndrome (C. Sookman Personal communication September 24, 2005).”

Virtual Team Characteristics

“We don’t always get to choose who is on our team. Everyone brings strengths and challenges to the team. What you need to do is manage expectations, roles and responsibilities. (C. Sookman Personal communication September 24, 2005).” The key is to identify signs of team dysfunction early and take corrective action. The leader has to be sensitive to early indications of any dysfunctional working on the team and address it quickly.

Many of the temporary virtual teams assembled by various naval commands consist of personnel who were selected based on their expertise and their ability to contribute to the team and not necessarily for their ability to support team cohesiveness.
Sharing leadership

The very reason for the virtual team’s existence may be to pull together people with special expertise and experience who do not work together in the same geographic space. As on any team where many highly competent people are brought together, leadership must be shared because no one member has all the answers. Leaders and coordinators should be willing to share leadership while team members should be willing to contribute it. On a virtual team, leadership shifts depending on the task at hand.

The team leader’s role

Traditional managers often take on the roles of decision maker, delegator, director, and scheduler of the work of others. Team leaders, on the other hand, are more like coaches. In moving from a traditional management role to that of team leader, you might shift the focus toward facilitating rather than directing. You will want to rely on the expertise of others rather than being seen as the ‘expert.’ Johnson (2001) writes that “understanding team roles and eliminating role ambiguity are important elements in managing virtual teams. And they deserve priority as the team is formed (p. 141).”
In addition, empower others to solve problems rather than being the problem solver. You may also consider sharing your planning responsibilities with the team rather than creating plans yourself. “Distance leaders know how to make their teams feel more autonomous and empowered. The distance leader reduces the team’s dependence on him or her for direction and assignments. They know how to create trust from a distance (K. Fisher Personal communication September 29, 2005).”

Virtual Team Pilot Program

The Requirements Department of Naval Surface Forces is in a unique position to successfully participate in a Virtual Team Pilot Program. Each member currently uses virtual technology on a regular basis and the Assistant Chief of Staff is currently the distance manger of the Pacific Command’s Requirements Division. Though each member of the department has experience in the use of virtual team technology “Both leaders and team members benefit from virtual team skill training (K. Fisher Personal communication September 29, 2005).” There are a number of companies that offer virtual team building training. Navy Knowledge Online has partnered with Harvard Management Mentors (2003) to developed “accessible, hand-on guidance covering 33 key management topics which includes working with a virtual team.”

Currently there are eleven personnel assigned to the Atlantic Command’s Requirements Division, six military and five civilians. I recommend that one civilian and one military personnel form the lower echelon participate in the pilot program for the first 3 months and two additional personnel are added each quarter. This allows ample time to receive feedback from participants and supervisors as well as analyze cost effectiveness.


Apgar, Mahlon (2000). “The Alternative Workplace: Changing Where and How People Work.” Harvard Business Review. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing,

K. Fisher, (2005). Personal Communication with the President of The Fisher Group and Co-Author of The Distance Manager. Email Correspondence September 29, 2005.

Fisher, Kimball and Fisher, Mareen D. (2001) The Distance Manager. A Hands-On Guide To Managing Off-Site Employees and Virtual Teams. McGraw-Hill Publishers. New York, NY.

Harvard Management Online (2003) Manage Mentor Plus. Harvard Business School Publishing. [https://wwwa.nko.navy.mil/hmmplus/menu_cat.htm]

Iriy, Robert (2004) NUWC’s Distance Chat Capability Gets Thumbs up from the Fleet. Undersea Warfare Magazine. Spring 2004. Retrieved Electronically September 25, 2005. [http://www.chinfo.navy.mil/navpalib/cno/n87/usw/issue_22/nuwc.htm]

Johnson, Nancy. (2001). Telecommuting and Virtual Offices: Issues and Opportunities. Idea Group Publishing. Hershey, PA.

Sookman, Claire (2005). Personal Communication with the President of Virtual Team Builders. Email correspondence September 24, 2005.

Wardell, Charles (1998). The Art of Managing Virtual Teams: Eight Key Lessons. Harvard Management Update, November 1998. A Newsletter from Harvard Business School Publishing. Retrieved Electronically October 6, 2005. [https://wwwa.nko.navy.mil/hmmplus/virtual/index_outline.htm]

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