The technical elements notwithstanding, a successful virtual team requires good leadership skills. A virtual team lacks hierarchy, unofficial power equations, or even visual cues that manifest in traditional non-virtual team meetings. In virtual teams, team members may never meet face-to-face and this leads to lack of involvement, with a “get over with it mentality," clinical rather than insightful discussions, and some team members hoping for a free ride without a supervisor or team leader breathing down his neck. A few members may dominate and without any motivators, other members may remain content to allow them to do so. Mutual trust becomes hard to establish, and even when established, it's hard to sustain. In such a scenario, the team leader requires some unique skills and competence to steer the team, establish a culture of collaboration, and get things done.
A virtual team is invariably flat in structure, and very often matrix, with team members involved in both a local team and a virtual team. Team leaders need to understand this fact and adopt a connect-to-collaborate style wherein they act as facilitators to spurn creativity and healthy discussions, rather than adopt the traditional command-and-directive style wherein they control the proceedings. They also need to establish an expertise based trust with different team members by allocating and requesting work based on their competence and accustomed to work style.
A virtual team radiates cognitive diversity and various styles in a much bigger way than traditional teams do. When properly managed, this increases productivity, but poorly managed team fuels conflicts owing to different priorities and perspectives developing, eventually leading to a dysfunctional team.
In a virtual team with faceless interaction, some members express themselves visually, others express themselves better in writing, and others do not express unless specifically asked to do so. Being geographically apart, very often across continents, different team members would have different standards of work ethics, method of giving feedback, documentation, and sharing ideas. The answer to how can virtual teams be successful very often depends on how the team leader understands these diverse styles and extracts the most out of each team member.
Virtual teams traditionally remain at a disadvantage owing to the difficulties in communication and coordination. Proper intervention that leverages technology and good leadership removes much of these disadvantages and even ensures virtual teams deliver much better productive output compared to traditional non-virtual teams.