A virtual team is any group of workers that works together from different physical locations. They could be across town or across the world, depending on your type of team. It can be very difficult for these teams to be successful--in one study, only 18% of the teams that were monitored were considered "highly successful." One of the major reasons that they failed was because the team as a whole was unable to trust one another to get their assigned tasks done.

However, when virtual teams are done right, they can increase productivity up to 43%, not to mention the other benefits like real estate cost savings and increased retention. However, you will only get this productivity boost (and increased bottom line) if you can make your virtual team feel like a "real" team. Here are a few tips to get you pointed in the right direction.

1. If possible, get your team together physically.

This tip is not always possible, but it does work well for those who telecommute on regular basis. If it isn't possible, a phone call or video chat may have the same effect. It is important that team members get to know each other on a personal level, especially if they are relying on one another to get tasks done. Employees are much more likely to follow through on assigned tasks and deadlines when they know that someone else is counting on them to get the work done. In fact, if they like the other team member, that probability increases as well.

On the other hand, keep in mind that some virtual team members literally have no reason to contact another member of their team other than perhaps one single point of contact. Some employees may be annoyed that you are "wasting" their time by introducing them to people that they will never work with. As long as your team member and their contact person are close, there is no real reason hold a "get together" type meeting--an introductory e-mail with an overview of each person's role really may do the trick.

2. Create clear communication protocols.

Create a plan with your team about who will communicate with whom--set up a when and a why at the outset. For example, if your employees have monthly tasks, ask them to check in every week to give you an update. Be clear about what you want in this update. Do you want to know what percentage of work is left to do? Problems? Anticipated delivery time? Then, respond to the update (and have other team members respond as appropriate). This quick update, especially if given to another team member, not only keeps you aware of what is going on, it also allows the team members to gradually build trust through their communications.

Keep in mind that you do not always have to be involved. If Jane is Tom's editor, for example, there is no reason for you to babysit them. Jane and Tom can set up their own check-in schedule. Allowing your employees a bit more flexibility and control will not only help improve their relationships, it may also boost productivity.

Setting up a communication alert system may not be a bad idea either. In some team apps, for example, the team member is alerted when a comment appears in their specific project. That way, they see others working and contributing and are motivated to do the same. Keeping the task at the forefront of the team member's mind might work for some employees, but be careful that this does not become excessive. Too much communication can cause your team members to ignore messages.

3. Adapt these classic team building exercises.

Traditional team building exercises may not work in a virtual environment, but that doesn't mean you can't adapt some of the classics. There are still many ways teams can bond without being in the same building. Here are some ideas to get your started:

  • Play virtual charades or other group participation games,
  • Encourage social networking (for non-work purposes only),
  • Give each other a virtual tour of their workspace (complete with pets and kids, if applicable),
  • Set up a virtual "happy hour" or "coffee break" to encourage employees to get to know one another,
  • Attend continuing education, training, or productivity/ brainstorming retreats together,
  • Set up virtual polls or fun quizzes,
  • Engage in group virtual gaming, like Words with Friends, Draw Something, or Trivia Crack (for two players at a time)
  • Send care packages or holiday-themed gifts, or
  • Set up playful contests like building the "best" snowman (virtual or otherwise), or a virtual coloring contest.

Make sure your team understands the value and purpose of these exercises as well. If your employees think you're adding useless activities into their already packed schedules, they may feel resentful, so make sure these activities are appropriately timed and scheduled. For example, if you own a tax preparation company, don't do a virtual happy hour on April 14th. Do you remember in the TV show The Office how Michael (the boss) would always schedule ridiculous events that kept his employees from doing their actual jobs? These did unite his workers, but often in rolling their eyes at his well-meaning, but misguided actions. Fun bonding activities should be a reward and an incentive, and they should not leave your employees working weekends to catch up.

Becoming an effective team means not only having the right people, assignments, and know-how, it also requires a real sense of togetherness. Every team will be a little different, but try out these suggestions and keep the ones that work best for you and your team.