“Globally linked virtual teams will transform every government and company in the world. Any of our peers who don’t do it won’t survive.” —John Chambers, CEO of Cisco

Startup teams benefit enormously from working in entrepreneurial hubs around the world, including MaRS in Toronto and Plug and Play in Silicon Valley. It’s the sheer physical proximity of so many diverse people working together that helps generate ideas and spark innovation.

Now this global entrepreneurial energy is finding new expression virtually thanks to the ubiquity of mobile technology, social media and intuitive collaborative platforms. Over 65 virtual business incubators have launched around the world. For example, the MIT Technology Licensing Office uses a “virtual incubator” model to start up new enterprises based on MIT technology. In the United Kingdom, the National Virtual Incubator is supported by Cisco Systems. Similarly, Brandeis University just introduced a master of science in information technology management program that covers topics including the leadership of virtual and global teams. These examples are just the tip of an immense global trend and opportunity.

Entrepreneurs: Working with virtual strangers may be your ticket

New entrepreneurs take note: simply put, if you want to scale your enterprise you can count on working with virtual strangers soon enough. People you may never or rarely meet physically may be instrumental to your success. The key will be to quickly develop rapport using both high tech and high touch.

About 1.3 billion people will soon be working on virtual teams. In the United States alone, almost half the adult labour force—64 million individuals—will be involved in telecommuting and remote working at least part of the time.

However, managing virtual teams is more complex and challenging than regular team management, a problem that human resource managers have yet to tackle. Specifically, virtual team members do not trust each other the way face-to-face colleagues do, and their performance suffers. Even though 81% of employees say that poor communication is the cause for cross-team failure, less than one-third of companies provide a proper training framework for team development.

Virtual teams offer very attractive benefits, including reduced travel costs, reduced carbon footprint, access to a more diverse global talent pool and greater potential for innovation. So why do virtual teams struggle?

The key to success with a virtual team? Build trust

In-depth research shows that virtual team members need to build trust to bridge the gap between high expectations and low performance. To develop trust, virtual teams must exercise a particular set of skills and competencies: self-knowledge, empathy, collaboration and appreciation for diversity. What’s called for is a purposeful, committed focus on enhancing the social and emotional skills of virtual team leaders and members. The easiest, most enjoyable and most economical way of doing so is to harness the transformative power of online play, games and creativity.

You can find 20 virtual team best practices here. Virtual teaming is a learned skill that can develop with practice, a skill that will become increasingly valued in the future workplace.

Howard B. Esbin

Dr. Howard B. Esbin is the founder of Heliotrope, a social purpose business, and the creator of Prelude, a group learning game that fosters 21st-century skills. Howard has over two decades of senior management experience in international development, philanthropy and the private sector. His work has been published by Education Canada, the International Labour Organization and UNESCO. See more…