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What is the Best Way to Manage a Virtual Team?

What is the Best Way to Manage a Virtual Team?

Even as little as 25 years ago the vast majority of teams worked together in the same physical location (and for the most part in close proximity to one another), but slowly and surely, the need for greater flexibility on both the employer and employee side have led to more and more team members being able to work remotely and now having whole teams working at completely independent locations. For individuals this trend has meant savings in commuting time and schedule flexibility, whereas for organizations it has led to lower employee travel costs and lower office accommodation costs (and other benefits too). These benefits are particularly significant for businesses that use virtual teams to operate globally, outsource/off-shore their operations, or need special skills or knowledge from people who are reluctant to travel or relocate from their home locations (a much bigger issue in the under 35 years of age Generation Y population it seems). 

Virtual teams operate in similar ways to traditional teams, but with one very significant difference – in the realm of communication. Here, as opposed to being able to use face-to-face exchanges in one-to-one discussions, informal group get-togethers and formal meetings, they have to rely on technology enabled channels such as the telephone, e-mails, text-messages, faxes, teleconferences (with or without vision), virtual meetings, etc. Of course, not all work is suitable for a virtual team (or even a partially virtual one). For example, physical work that people need to do together or any major tasks that involve sequential or highly integrated work being done (such as in manufacturing, production lines or large traditional retail establishments for example) are rarely good candidates for this type of approach. This is particularly the case when each person’s work depends much on what someone else is doing at the same time or frequent information exchange is necessary in order to achieve a good result. 

When a virtual team is possible, performing well in this kind of situation means that team leaders and members must pay greater attention to a number of factors. Some of these are highlighted in the table below:

Managers in a Virtual Team climate need to: Employees in a Virtual Team climate need to:
  • Have much clearer work rules and protocols
  • Pay much more attention to setting and updating individual and team goals
  • Set performance targets and standards (individually and collectively)
  • Build trust and collaboration opportunities
  • Be emotionally intelligent
  • Be a clear and open communicator
  • Be self-motivated
  • Take initiative without prompting
  • Be able to work independently
  • Be able to keep working effectively without much external control or structure
  • Be strongly result-oriented
  • Be a clear and open communicator

As can be seen from both lists, the last requirement for both parties, clear and open communication at all times, is probably the most important of all in any successful virtual team. 

So how should a virtual team be led and what is important in doing so?

For a virtual team to be effective there are four cornerstone needs. They are as follows: 

The most appropriate possible Leadership

Not every leader is equipped to manage a virtual team. Ideally he or she will have had some experience of doing this with some remote employees on the team but even if this is not the case, the leader must be good at communicating, fostering trust and building relationships (individually and between team members) is critical. This is rarely a job for quiet and passive types as most virtual teams need very voluble and active leadership to make them feel like a team at all. Don’t forget, even teams that are relatively close but not physically together (such as on different floors of the same building or in separate “wings”) need much more coordination effort by the leader.

The most appropriate Team-members

Just like leaders, not everyone is suited to working virtually (which most often means working alone or perhaps at best in pairs or threes as part of an even larger team). Individuals should therefore be asked whether they are happy to work well under their own steam, be able to take initiative without being pushed to do so as often as they might in a traditional team and put up with being more resourceful to get things done when necessary. The more you can warn people of what to expect and get their assent that they can work well in this way, the better.

The most appropriate Collaboration/coordination systems

Virtual teams (especially relatively new ones) need more collaboration and coordination mechanisms than a traditional team because they have to agree on overall or collective goals and targets and then work individually on their tasks in helping to achieve it. This is particularly true when projects or major tasks commence and team-members need to know exactly who they will be collaborating with and how. In addition to this greater care about collaboration and coordination, mechanisms needs to take place in several other areas such as how and when emails are sent (and who is copied) conference calls are held when necessary, phone calls are made and even written reports or memos are distributed (and to whom). 

The most appropriate Technology

Even the most high-performing virtual teams can be undermined by poor technology. Ahead of their establishment it is therefore extremely important to think about all the collaborative and coordination-based technology that may be useful and then to make sure that everyone has access to it. This includes (but is not limited to):

  • Conference calling (giving people access numbers and the ability to both set one up with the team, or some people within it, and participate)
  • Direct calling (giving people all land and mobile phone numbers that they need to access to get information)
  • Email and text messaging systems (giving people primary and secondary email/text message addresses so that they can contact everyone on the virtual team).
  • Online project sharing boards and systems (usually a single platform that everyone can use to post messages, documents and files that other members of the virtual team can then access
  • Shared Knowledge centers/databases etc. (may be the same system as the above but if different set up so that everyone can access the database when needed).

Each of the above four cornerstone areas may not operate entirely smoothly at first or when a virtual team is established for the first time. However, with focus and attention on all of these areas, the performance of the virtual team will lift considerably and it will operate as a well-oiled organization to the benefit of both the wider organization and the individuals that comprise it. But beware! No partially or fully virtual team can be left in their respective or separate locations for too long. It is therefore critical that you bring the team together in person every so often. This will clearly vary according to each team but monthly, quarterly or even annual events that allow people to meet in person help deepen relationships considerably.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at OptimalJon@gmail.com

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One Comment

  1. John AinsleyMay 22, 2015 at 10:51 am

    Having been part of a global virtual team and led a EMEA virtual team I can agree with everything in the article. Creating the atmosphere of trust and collaboration across languages and cultures is a critical part of effective leadership. A big danger in the early formation of such a team is the tendency to micro manage which doesn’t help if the employee has all the attributes described. Bringing social interaction in conference calls is a great way to get to know the team and for the team to get to know each other. As an example, we had a Mexican team member run Spanish language classes and the global leader paid for the text book we all used. Great fun at minimal cost. We also had virtual BBQ’s.All understanding and working towards common goals and having fun doing it.

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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