Six steps for developing virtual team cultures

In the fourth industrial revolution, online collaboration is increasingly required. What are the culture requirements to virtual teams that work online and never meet face to face?

By Tone S. Ringstad , Founder and CEO of Culture Intelligence


MIT has completed a study with two groups. They assigned each of 68 teams to complete an emotional intelligence test in one of two conditions. Half of the teams worked face to face, like the teams in our earlier studies. The other half worked online, with no ability to see any of their teammates. They were able to study social abilities and collaboration capabilities in the two types of teams. Emotion-reading mattered just as much for the online teams whose members could not see one another as for the teams that worked face to face. The conclusion was that what makes teams smart must be not just the ability to read facial expressions, but a more general ability in what other people feel, know and believe.

The insight from this study has great impact in development of team and company culture. A large number of teams in business today operate online over long periods of time, confronting each other with tasks and problems. Business of today depends on teams mastering collaboration across barriers not only functionally, but also geographically and over time-zones.

This new insight adds virtual team culture to the already long list of how culture impacts business performance. Culture is documented to impact individuals and teams, and is especially crucial for explaining who will do good in new situations and who will need more learning and adaptation to changing work processes or collaboration ways. Culture has been identified by Gartner as the biggest barrier to implementation of new technology.

We know from 20 years experience that in order for culture has to be understood, shared and owned by the participants in any team, it has to be made explicit (Values Shift, B.P.Hall, 2004). We have also found that designing the aspired culture needs to start from owning the actual, and stretched towards fitting the strategy. Then comes the intelligently crafted action plan to eliminate the culture gap between the two.

Culture change takes time and resources and is not done by hoping and guessing. It requires precise data and proven methods. In virtual teams this is more difficult, but now we know it is equally impactful. To succeed with building the right virtual team culture we recommend six steps:

  1. Identify the culture challenges in the virtual business strategy
  2. Build Awareness about values systems and culture models
  3. Map the Actual culture
  4. Design the Aspired culture
  5. Identify Actions for shared efforts to develop across teams
  6. Monitor and revise plan

We have demonstrated the Awareness, Actual, Aspired, Action process for teams in all segments and business positions. We hope that understanding team culture development better will help organizations and leaders create and manage virtual team culture more effectively.