How to Manage Virtual Teams

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by Cardell Phillips

You’re an experienced leader, but have only a vague notion of what it takes to manage a virtual team. Where do you start?

To lead a virtual team, it’s important to know that the nature of teams has changed. They’ve become more distributed across geography and industries, says Lisa Kimball, executive producer of Group Jazz, a virtual management consultant company.  Building relationships between people inside an organization and those who previously considered outsiders (customers, suppliers, collaborating organizations, other stakeholders) are becoming more important. Virtual team members work across traditional boundaries on a temporary basis to bring different perspectives and skills to the team.

Therefore, leading a virtual team requires more than working on the team’s project. It calls for a new style of management. The first thing to consider is that virtual teams require a considerable amount of attention to develop. Here are several things that team managers need to consider:

Communication

When the subject of virtual teams comes up, all of the attention goes to technology, Web conferences, e-mail, teleconferences, etc. Communications however, is basically about people, so managing virtual teams has more to do with people than technology. All the rules about managing people still apply. One challenge of a virtual team is learning to use technology to introduce and maintain the energy dynamic necessary to the life of the team. Since team members are separated from each other, regular contact is essential. If there is none, you can lose people. One suggestion is to make answering team members’ emails and phone calls a priority. No one likes to think his or her message has dropped into a black hole. Kimball recommends creating a virtual conference table as a visual tool for sensing the entire group.

Purpose

Before the launch of a virtual team, members must have a clear idea of the team’s mission, the problem it’s attempting to solve and the team’s objectives. Members have to see the whole picture as well as how their role fits into it. If members cannot see past their own role, they become contributors instead of teammates.

Socialize

Team members who work together in person have opportunities to chat throughout the day. Virtual teammates don’t have that option. Although teammates certainly don’t need to be close, some level of bonding has to occur for the team to work. This is difficult to achieve when members are scattered across the country or around the world. It’s up to the manager to figure out ways to use the technology to facilitate human interaction. One way is to request that members share something personal about their lives, such as hobbies or the ages of their children.

Etiquette

A team needs a set of common acceptable behaviors. This is even more important for virtual teams. The ground rules can include things like setting the hours when members are expected to be working, establishing lunch times, noting which meetings are mandatory, and defining expectations for communication turnaround times. This also means no interruptions from squabbling children, televisions droning in the background or multi-tasking. Members need to exude professionalism even though they are at home in their robes and slippers. Establishing practices will ensure a proficient working environment.

Time Differences

Team members living in different time zones present a special problem for virtual teams. If a manager insists that all meetings begin at 9 a.m., he will cause resentment from members who have to stay up late to attend. No matter what time you schedule a meeting, someone will be burning the midnight oil. One way to deal with this is to arrange for blackout periods where no meetings are scheduled. Another is to schedule separate meetings to accommodate members in different time zones. Electronic calendars such as MS Outlook have the capabilities to show multiple time zones that make it easy to coordinate meeting times.

Culture

It’s possible all of the members of your virtual teamwork from the same basic cultural assumptions. But if you’re leading a global team, conflicts are likely because of different working styles. Members can minimize these by sharing information about their local customs, traditions, geography, government, economy, and people.

Technology

Make sure virtual workers are properly wired and ready to go. The communications technology a virtual team will use most often includes teleconferences, bridges, e-mail, instant messaging, message boards, shared directories, and Web conferencing. Vary your communication methods to keep members involved. Learn each member’s favorite communication channel. Different types of technology are best suited to different purposes. If an issue generates a flood of emails, for instance, it may be time for a teleconference.

Leadership

Put away the whips and sticks. Since a manager of a virtual team can’t watch over team members throughout the day, the emphasis has to move away from managing and controlling to leading and inspiring. To give members room to brainstorm, a virtual staff room can be created where the manager doesn’t have access, and members can feel comfortable in sharing what they know. According to Kimball, virtual team members must be allowed to make choices about whom they need to communicate with without regard to traditional organizational boundaries, distance, and time.

Celebrate

Acknowledging and celebrating individual and team accomplishments are essential to a virtual team because it fosters a productive environment. The possibilities here are endless. You could, for example, send an ecard to celebrate the team reaching a milestone. You could also organize a virtual pizza party, where you send all of the members of a team a pizza at the same time and get together on a conference call to socialize.

Kimball says virtual teams are fast becoming the rule rather than the exception in organizations, and that it’s necessary to develop strategies to deal with the challenges they create. The job of the manager is to help the team learn how to be a virtual team and, most of all, to create ways to make the working of it a reality that all members can experience.

The most important thing to remember? Managing a virtual team is basically about managing a team.

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