As many companies select members of project teams from across various global locations, the number of virtual teams is rapidly increasing. By having them communicate virtually, companies involve the best talent available and save both time and money. In light of these changes, knowing how to manage virtual teams in different cities and countries is becoming a basic requirement for ensuring the success of this new working-model.
Whether your team is separated by half a world, half an hour, or half of your people work from home part of the time, you have a virtual team. To succeed, virtual collaboration must be managed in specific ways. So what should you do?
All new leaders need to align their team in the early stages on goals, roles, and responsibilities. With virtual teams, however, coordination is inherently more of a challenge because people are not co-located. Virtual teams need more communications, more protocols, and more clarity. As a project manager, be clear about basic policies and procedures for your team, such as work processes with specifics about who does what and when, expectations for deadlines, resolution of team issues, availability, and even communications. If this information is gathered in a manual, don’t forget this is a live document that changes continuously based on daily practice.
Before starting a task, take the time to review what IT tools or internet connections your team members have. Since they don’t share an office, their needs may vary. Video chats, web calls, and desktop sharing allow you to become closer to your distributed team members without spending much money and time on business trips or telephone calls. Don’t forget to take different time zones and working hours into account as well. This will prevent any mishaps during the execution phase.
“Out of sight and out of mind” is a natural human behavior that works against the virtual team project manager. The project manager’s challenge is to be visible and present, yet not overly so. Finding the right balance of how frequently to communicate is one aspect of creating a virtual personality. If a project manager overly communicates, it may cause important information to get lost in the deluge and may convey a sense of micromanaging or a lack of trust. If the project manager becomes invisible and is not heard from for weeks, it is easier for a virtual team member to interpret this as a lack of concern and to wonder about the importance of the project. This may cause team members to put their priorities elsewhere.
When you accept a leadership position, you also take on the role of motivator and facilitator. So, even when your staff is geographically dispersed, it’s important to cultivate a team environment where your employees feel connected to you—and to each other. Relaxed, spontaneous moments like enjoying a cup of coffee with a colleague or striking up a conversation in the elevator are non-existent in virtual work environments and are often important for gauging the mood of the team. To boost morale, be sure to foster personal interaction between team members. Keep an informal online communication, such as a chat room, open all the time for team members to just hang out. Facilitate idea-sharing and feedback with a running dialogue, talk via phone at least once a week, use Instant Messaging, email, and other technologies – also to help minimize miscommunication.
Virtual meetings can be effective and efficient with proper planning, but there are some challenges. People are disengaged when meetings do not stay on track or have no clear agenda. To avoid this, it’s best to prepare a meeting outline to which everyone can contribute. This should be emailed 48 hours prior to the meeting. Delegate some items of the agenda to team members so they can take over running the meeting. During the meeting, a good team leader will ask questions frequently and verify that everyone on the other end is engaged. Also he or she will make sure that everyone takes turns speaking to avoid long monologues and that all team members contribute their ideas in a clear and concise manner. Ground rules help managing effective group interaction. Examples: No multi-tasking, meetings start and end on time. It is good to know that future virtual meetings can be more effective if the first team meeting is face-to-face. Team members build relationships and trust that set the stage for a successful working relationship.
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