Managing Virtual Teams
Team Working That Overcomes Time and Space
More and more companies are going global. And more professionals are working from home.
Because of this, businesses are increasingly relying on virtual teams to get their jobs or projects done.
Like any conventional team, a virtual team consists of a group of people who interact to complete interdependent tasks and work towards a common goal. But instead of working in the same office, the team members work in different places, often at home, and in different time zones. And they may never meet their co-workers face-to-face.
Virtual team working has become possible because of advancements in communication technologies. Members of the virtual team mainly interact electronically by email, messaging and Voice over IP technologies like Skype.
They may also communicate by telephone, teleconference and, to a lesser extent, through video conferencing.
Building a Virtual Team
Virtual teams often evolve rather than get planned that way. Whether you consciously decide to set up a virtual team or your virtual team has evolved, it's likely to be for one or more of the following reasons:
- The choice of best skills irrespective of your business's physical location.
- 24 hour coverage by team members working across time zones.
- Reduced office overheads when team members work from home.
- Cost effective and flexible resource scheduling: You can scale up or down as demand requires.
As a member of a virtual team, you can benefit from greater flexibility and freedom from many of the constraints of office working. Among the benefits you may find are:
- Being valued for your skills irrespective of your physical location.
- Not having to face the waste of time, discomfort and cost of commuting.
- Working from any place you choose.
- Working at times that suit you.
- Physical disabilities are no hindrance.
When you set up a virtual team, the world is your oyster! You can recruit people with the right skills, irrespective of their geographic location. You can get your team working 24 hours a day with team members across different time zones. You can easily bring in people who work on a part time basis, and easily integrate experts who need only contribute for a few hours each month.
On the one side, this means enormous flexibility; On the flip side, you face the challenge of managing people you may never meet, and dealing with people from widely different cultures, languages, and with different personalities.
You and your team members will face many challenges. Issues and difference can arise because of team members' different cultures and backgrounds. Each person has different expectations, different experience and different working styles. The team must work hard to ensure each person can contribute effectively and to ensure the team pulls together towards the common goal.
The Importance of Effortless Communication
The single biggest challenge that virtual teams face is communication. Without the usual face-to-face daily exchanges between team members, you and your team members must make extra effort to communicate effectively. There are no chats by the water cooler! And it's not so easy to socialize outside office hours. So you need to make up for the loss of informal communications, make good use of communication technology, and communicate, communicate, communicate.
Among the communications channels that you may consider using are:
- Intranet team notice board, constantly updated with team news.
- Intranet team room, where people can share photos and get to know each other.
- Regular team newsletter.
- Team meetings by teleconferences.
- Occasional face-to-face meetings.
Above all, though, your communications infrastructure must work smoothly, and people must be happy using it without being hampered by inconvenience and with little thought for cost.
This sounds challenging and expensive, but fortunately it's not. Internet technology has matured to a stage where email is reliable and dependable. And (we'll mention it again!) technologies like Skype mean that you can communicate globally for free – this makes it almost as easy and cheap to talk to someone thousands of miles away as it is to talk to someone on the other side of your office.
Picking the Right People
Recruiting and managing virtual teams is another challenge. It is not a given fact that a good team member in the conventional sense will perform equally well in a virtual environment. Your team members must be self-motivated, results-oriented and able to work independently. And of course, each team member must also be able to communicate effectively with the team lead and his or her team colleagues.
To manage a virtual team effectively, you must learn the strengths and weaknesses of each team member. And that's all the harder without daily, face-to-face opportunities to casually monitor and mentor each person.
Working remotely, you must give each team member the guidance and support they need and also build trust in each person abilities and reliability. It's important to create the virtual equivalent of an "open door policy". Make sure team members know how to get what they need from you and encourage open and frequent communications.
Aligning Incentives for Success
Another management challenge is monitoring performance and aligning incentives. If this is important for successful management in a normal environment, it is absolutely fundamental to success with virtual teams.
You must choose whether to reward people for what they deliver or for set hours each day. Aligning incentives well can make management and monitoring much easier. A sales agent could be paid for each customer call he or she makes. Whilst a service support executive may be paid for set hours to ensure you can provide a reliable response to urgent support calls. A journalist, meanwhile, may be rewarded for each article or for the number of good quality words they deliver.
In virtual teams, team building must be a very conscious process and effort. Stripped of the natural benefits of team socialization and trust building, the manager of a virtual team must provide the means and opportunities for team building that compensate. Without the benefits of informal communication and casual chat, he or she must actively and regularly communicate direction, ensure that team members know what they need to know, and that make sure that team members feel supported and appreciated.
More than this, team members working virtually should feel that they have the same opportunities for appreciation and promotion as those "at head office." Managers must constantly work to avoid the very human error of giving preference to people they can see and whose hands they can shake.
When managed effectively, your business and your team members will be able to enjoy the successes and benefits of working in a virtual team. Done properly, there can be huge advantages to virtual team work!
Keys to Successful Virtual Team Working
- Choose people who are self-motivated, self-reliant and results-oriented.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate.
- Ensure that your communications infrastructure is robust, and that people can communicate in a way that seems effortless.
- Make sure incentives are aligned with the outcome and deliverables you need from the team.
- Give clear directions, objectives and context.
- Monitor and give feedback often.
- Recognize a job well done and share success stories among the team.
- Build trust among the team members.
- Help team members get to know each other and understand different cultures and backgrounds of other people.
- Then communicate, communicate, and communicate some more!