Success factors for managing virtual teams
October 27th, 2012 by Julian Corlet
Working as a virtual team can be a great option for all involved. For the employer, the costs of running from a centralised office can be reduced or eliminated and you may be able to find talent that is unavailable or priced out of your reach in your local market. For the employee, it can mean greater control of their schedule and access to opportunities that otherwise, simply wouldn’t exist for them. However with these advantages come a whole raft of new considerations and challenges for you, the manager.
Establishing a new team is a challenge in any situation and even more so for a remote team. Some factors you may need to consider include:
- Is the team spread across time zones?
- Is this a full-time commitment for everyone involved? If not, what limitations does this impose?
- What tools are needed to facilitate communication and collaboration?
- Does everyone share a common first language?
- If there are technological requirements, such as transferring large files between team members, is the necessary infrastructure for this available in all locations?
- How will you measure progress?
For the considerations that relate to your circumstances, you will need to come up with an approach and make sure that everyone is aligned on expectations at the outset.
Building a strong culture is never easy in a remote team, but it is at least as important as with a centrally located team. Superficial aspects of culture such as dress code or a rigid start time to the working day may be less important, but how people interact and understanding ‘the mission’ are hugely relevant.
Be prepared to invest more heavily in scheduled face-to-face time via Skype or a similar channel than you otherwise might do, especially in the early days when the team is still forming. Relying on email and the occasional phone call is fine for most interactions, but it doesn’t build the rapport needed for the team to function effectively. When issues do arise (and they will), you’re going to need this. If your team is located in a similar geographical area but chooses to work virtually for the most part, make the effort to meet in person as often as is practical and dedicate some time to bonding through less structured discussion and general chit chat.
If you are working across international boundaries, you may find for instance, that your team members are used to a more hierarchical environment than your own. If you want to build a team where everyone is expected to challenge the boss and drive their own initiatives, you will need to invest more heavily in these concepts and ultimately may find your team just isn't that comfortable with the approach.
Technology such as the internet and inexpensive, reliable international telephony were major drivers of the emergence of remote teams. Now, the popularity of remote teams is in turn driving a wave of technological innovation of its own. This includes:
- Direct communication tools such as instant messaging, conference calling, videoconferencing and internet telephony clients such as Skype.
- Task management and collaboration tools such as BaseCamp and Asana.
- Status reporting tools such as my own company’s product, Reportify.
- Special purpose tools for remote screen sharing or file sharing such as Join.me and Dropbox.
The list of available tools in this space is constantly growing, so have a search around. You'll most likely find options in these categories that are a good fit for your team.
Expect communication issues to crop up and be on the lookout for them. If you detect that something has changed in the length, tone, frequency or timeliness of communications, there’s every chance that something is amiss. Don’t just push it aside. Think through what the root causes might be and at the earliest opportunity talk it through with your team member. One-on-ones are the most appropriate forum for these sorts of issues – further emails or texts are likely to make the situation worse! On the flip side, if you’re feeling like some aspect of communication isn’t working for you, address it before it becomes a source of conflict. Again, choose your forum wisely, the more personal the better.
It’s also important to have boundaries to your communications. Try to stick to your agreed ‘office hours’ for communication, and if you do send a message outside of those times, accept that you won’t always get an immediate response.
Communication is a two way street and your team will be looking to you for overall direction. Be sure to send regular updates on the immediate and longer-term goals of the team, delivery targets, major wins and so on.
Working remotely takes a certain amount of self discipline and not everyone is well suited to it. It’s important to have a process in place whereby each team member clearly states what they plan to achieve in a given period (daily is ideal for remote teams, but certainly no less than weekly) and then state what they actually achieved. This can be as simple as sending an email each day, or could involve the use of a status reporting tool such as Reportify. If you’re managing more than one remote resource, sending a consolidated daily status update of everyone’s submissions (including yours!). Using a status reporting tool will cut down on the overhead with this.
It’s also worth considering where the line is drawn between overwhelming your team with overly frequent check-ins and having them feel as if no one is paying attention. There is no clear cut answer to this and it will depend in large part on the team member. Still, few would object to being contacted once or twice a day to see how they’re going or check on the progress of something specific.
Lastly, be sure that team members’ achievements are given the recognition they deserve. This might be in the form of covering the cost of a night out with their partner or a simple virtual pat on the back for a job well done.
Remote teams present their fair share of challenges, but with the right approach they can be a great way to deliver outcomes that might not have been an option with a centrally located team.
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Julian Corlet is the founder of Reportify, a web-based status reporting tool. Julian's background is in the Telecommunications industry where he spent 15 years in management and technical roles prior to founding Reportify in 2012. Reportify was built to address shortcomings with existing approaches to the creation and collation of team status reports. You can follow Julian on Twitter @reportify.