Making Your Virtual Teams Work Better

Back in 2013, Virgin CEO, Richard Branson, famously said that working in an office would soon be a “thing of the past.” Today, as the Baby Boomer generation — with the “60-hour work week” mentality and contempt for telecommuting employees — leaves management and heads off into retirement, the rise of virtual employees will soon transform into virtual teams that must be managed and kept productive. Are you ready to lead those teams?

Businesses constantly look for ways to improve company efficiency and group satisfaction. Virtual teams, where employees from different locations all work together on one project, can be one of those ways. But only if they remain productive, however. Managing these units can be difficult as workers can potentially operate in different time zones with distinctive job responsibilities.

One of the toughest parts of managing virtual teams is that you have to create a corporate culture with a group that may only meet face-to-face once a year. There are several steps you can use to do it and here’s our take on it:

  1. Hire people you can trust to work remotely and then trust the people you hire

Let’s face it … it takes a certain discipline to work off-site, and if you have someone that struggles with it on a 10-person team, the entire project will suffer. For managers, it’s the same challenge as having someone in the office who is not a “team player”.

Now, let’s assume you’ve done the first step and gotten people who can work off-site, don’t make the mistake of micro-managing them just because you don’t see them face-to-face. If you’ve given them clear and detailed deliverables to start with, allow them the chance to give them to you. Trusting your team to deliver will pay off a thousand times over in the long run. And, if one or more of them give you reason to stop trusting them (missing deadlines, unacceptable quality of work, etc.), you can handle it then with that person.

  1. Take advantage of technology

Whenever there is a major shift in how business is done, it seems to either slightly precede or follow innovations in technology. Just a few years ago, there were only a handful of software choices that could allow virtual teams to communicate, share work, track time spent working, and collaborate. Today, there are several highly-rated programs and apps that can be easily tweaked to fit your needs.

For communicating with each other, email became the tool of choice over the last 20 years and it wasn’t hard to see why. The only problem is that email became so omnipresent that EVERYTHING came in via email. That’s why for the last five years, every time management advice article strongly advises limiting your time reading emails to just a few minutes a day. If you’re on a virtual team that uses email to talk, that isn’t going to work. (And, let’s be honest, if you’ve ever gotten caught in a seemingly endless “Reply All” string between co-workers heatedly “discussing” something you are not involved with, you know that smashing your computer with a hammer out of frustration is always a possibility!)

Luckily, today you have real-time communication apps like Slack and HipChat, where teammates can message one another as well as store and archive messages in case a team member needs to look up an old conversation. Your team can track task and workflow with tools like Asana, which often shows up at the top of most “Best of” lists. For collaboration, Igloo, Podio, and Workfront are three of the most popular. Luckily, if your organization is just starting down the path of creating virtual work teams, there are dozens of choices to help you hit the ground running.

  1. Create a routine similar to what they’d have in the office

Technology aside, remote employees can fall off the grid without regular check-ins. It’s your responsibility to ensure all workers complete the necessary tasks and obligations of their roles. Team leaders can catch-up with their virtual teams by scheduling regular meetings and briefings on the same day, at the same time every week. Routines add a sense of familiarity and uniformity even though team members operate from different places. If possible, bring everyone on the team into the office for an initial face-to-face meeting to go over goals, expectations, and let them meet each other if they haven’t already.

It is critical to have individual meetings and conversations with each team member without others online so you can discuss their concerns or challenges. Just like when working in the office, there will be team members that are chatty and talkative that you know exactly where they stand, and you’ll have the incredibly competent but quiet introvert that needs a little coaxing to talk.

  1. Pay attention to time zones

It’s more common these days for virtual teams to have members who reside in different locales around the world. Although these employees may be operating in various time zones, it’s necessary for managers to make sure at least some work hours overlap. This ensures important group information doesn’t fall through the cracks and workers remain responsible for their part of the project.

To ensure your virtual units are successful, you have to make sure employees operate at similar times throughout the day, define tasks and obligations and develop a routine for all team members. That means your employee operating out of the Philippines works the overnight shift in his area of the world to be able to work with your guy in Chicago’s afternoon schedule that coincides with your London employee’s evening work time.

  1. Demand clear and concise writing in communications

Even with meeting technology, the written word is still the most important communication method, so it is important you emphasize how critical it is to write clearly. Miscommunication jumps sky-high when team members choose being cute and clever over being clear. HelpScout put it best, “Confusion is only a keystroke away for virtual teams, which makes clear, coherent written communication an essential skill.”

Virtual teams are an important part of many businesses today and all signs point to them potentially becoming the norm. However, these groups comprised of many remote workers can be a challenge to manage. Through sound management techniques, technology, patience, and a whole lot of common sense, it can be incredibly rewarding.

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