Team Building – Managing Virtual Teams

The Virtual Team evolved as business spread wings to operate globally. Members of Virtual Teams work for a business unit in the usual way but may not live in the same geographic area.  Sometimes people call these teams Geographically Dispersed Work Groups.

Team members may never meet in person but meet via video conference or using web cam and net meetings.  They work electronically and may use specialty software called virtual team software.  Team members may all report to the same person in the traditional employee arrangement.

 1. Walk the good-project-management talk

You know the heart of successful project management:  work to a strategy, set realistic goals, choose the right people for each job, assign tasks and deadlines clearly, confirm that everyone understands his or her responsibilities, keep accurate minutes, note action items, benchmark, coach team members, report results regularly, adjust along the way, meet deadlines, and stay within budget.

When you manage a Virtual Team, walk this talk.  You can’t pop in out of offices to check on this or that detail. There are no lunch meetings for discussions, conflict resolution and filling gaps in understanding and expectations.  Keep up clear communication; there’s not much room for lapses.

 2. Create a team blog

If people don’t meet face to face in somewhere called business home, a team blog could be a useful source of identity.  As their first team task, ask them to work together and create a Team Page with logo and colour choices.

The goal is for everyone to feel a sense of identity and have an additional way to communicate.

 3. Introduce everyone

Post photos of the team members and ask each person to introduce him or herself.  You may arrange for people to join a conversation via Google Talk or Skype and introduce themselves while everyone is looking at the photos.  For a bit of fun, use Flash and have people smile, wave or wink.

 4. Provide contact information

Create a secure page that details email address, geographic location, time zone, and the person’s team role.

Create a chart showing example time differences. If possible, use global time clocks. Adjust for Summer time / Daylight Savings Time. Introduce UTC – the local time at the prime meridian, which passes through Greenwich, England.

 5. Establish leadership

Based on backgrounds, experiences, and preferences, decide whether this will be a self-directed/self-managed team, whether the team will elect a team leader or whether you, as the manager in charge will lead the team.  Then let everyone know.

6. Establish trust

To mitigate the problems of caution, distancing, hidden feelings and worries festering, emphasise the beauty of team effort where each contributes a special talent. Then make sure the metrics reflect it.

Make tasks and deadlines clear and realistic.  Name each person’s role and put it into print on the team page and perhaps onto a team letterhead. Invite people to speak openly about any issue and break the ice by doing so yourself.  Hold an open discussion about the pleasure of trust and ask for suggestions about the best ways to build and sustain it among people who may never meet.

7. Check frequently on perception and consensus

While you want to people to share ideas and challenge one another enthusiastically, you don’t want a lively clash of personalities.  Learn about Appreciative Inquiry’s approach to framing things in a positive way and focusing on strengths.

Establish a system – or ask the team to establish a system – for making regular checks on perceptions of progress, process, cooperation, workload, contributions, communication, trust, quality, and technical matters relating to the team’s work.  Check the team’s perception about whether the form of management is working well or needs tweaking.

8. Keep a diary

As the responsible executive and centre of team gravity, you will have the usual balls in the air.  However when people are a dispersed work force you need to do more than keep your eye on these balls.  Keep a large format diary where you make not only the ordinary business entries but where you also keep a Virtual Team Early Warning System.

It’s old fashioned yet one of those tools that works. Note red flags, queries, possible need for proactive preventive action, and other information that helps you manage people you don’t often look in the eye.

9. Provide feedback, coach people and have fun

No matter the work form, at various times people need feedback, coaching and fun.  Use the Early Warning System to flag needs for coaching. If you coach by email, be prepared to spend time typing.  Better to use internet phone calls and where necessary, make sure one of you gets on a train or plane.

10. Check back on virtual team software

Do virtual teams need bespoke software for online collaboration?  The jury is still out on this one.  For some, virtual team software is a useful tool for organisation, workflow, document management and other matters relating to administration and managing information.

Some people use virtual team software as a substitute for managing the team and team members, hoping that the software will ensure that people share trust, intuition, creativity, knowledge, learning and wisdom.  I haven’t found hard evidence that using specialty software improves the virtual team process, relationships, team spirit, trust and the rest of the human factors that are fundamental to successful geographically dispersed team working.
More on managing virtual teams…

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