Roles in Virtual Teams (5 min)

Roles in Virtual Teams

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a role as:

  1. a character assigned or assumed or b) a socially expected behavior pattern usually determined by an individual’s status in a particular society or c) a part played by an actor or singer
  2. a function or part performed especially in a particular operation or process

Within any organization, team members have both assigned or formal functional roles, as well as informal roles that they play within the group. Role Theory can help us to understand this further…

Role Theory


“Role theory is a concept in sociology and in social psychology that considers the most everyday activity to be the acting-out of socially defined categories (e.g., mother, manager, teacher). Each role is a set of rights, duties, expectations, norms, and behaviors that a person has to face and fulfill. The model is based on the observation that people behave predictably, and that an individual’s behavior is context-specific, based on social position and other factors.”

Source: Wikipedia

In a virtual team, members may have 2 or more types of the role including:

Functional Role – their job title, job description and the function they perform within a team e.g. Marketing Director, Accounts Executive, Janitor.

Social Role – an informal function that they have as a personality within the social group e.g. mediator, catalyst, provocateur, agony aunt, visionary.

Check out this short video (3 min) that gives an overview of Role Theory.

Belbin Team Roles

A commonly used framework for understanding team roles in an organization is Belbin Team Roles. Raymond Meredith Belbin came up with a tool called the Belbin Team Inventory for measuring individual preferences for each of the nine-team roles that he identified. The assessment is based on the extent to which individuals express certain behaviors connected with a role, and often one individual will express traits connected to multiple different roles.


The nine roles Belbin identified are:

  • Plant – creative, unorthodox and generators of ideas. 
  • Resource Investigator – networker, pursues external contacts and opportunities, brings in ideas from outside.
  • Co-ordinator – clarifies decisions, excellent at delegating, sees the bigger picture.
  • Shaper – very task-focused, achievement-oriented, likes to win, challenges team to improve, sees obstacles as exciting challenges.
  • Monitor Evaluator – unbiased, sees all sides of a situation clearly and impartially, analytical and steady in problem-solving.
  • Teamworker – keeps things running smoothly, tends to relationships and helps diffuse conflict, diplomatic and great listener.
  • Implementer – turns ideas into action, organized, reliable, self-starting and disciplined, loyal to the overall objectives of the team and motivated by this.
  • Completer Finisher – perfectionist, values accuracy highly, holds high standards for self, may hyperfocus on small details.
  • Specialist – focused and passionate, extremely knowledgeable about a particular field and like to share this with others, driven by further developing their expertise and seeking new information about their specialist topic. 

Coordinating Roles in a Virtual Team

Coordinating roles in a virtual team present some distinct challenges when compared with an in-person setting.

Coordinating across time zones and geographies: when individuals are working in different time zones, collaboration on tasks, management and reporting have to be coordinated across everyone’s availability. This may lead to more asynchronous or text-based communication, with less ‘face-time’. Text-based and asynchronous communication is more likely to lead to misunderstandings and is less conducive to team bonding.

Management and reporting across flatter hierarchies:  Virtual teams tend to be less complex in terms of reporting hierarchies and have a flatter structure of collaboration. Without the casual interactions that happen in an office, more effort is needed to implement reporting structures and create accountability.

Clarify Responsibilities, Tasks and Processes: In a virtual team, the tasks and processes involved may differ from those in a physical office environment. As well as being clear on the different roles in your team, make sure to clarify the tasks and responsibilities for each role, as well as the processes that support the different roles to work together efficiently and harmoniously. Remember – in a virtual team more communication is better than less. Encourage your team to write out and share the workflows for important processes, with emphasis on who is responsible for each part.

Check out this short video ( 5 mins) on the RACI tool – which can help to create clarity around responsibility, accountability, consultation and information sharing between roles.