5 Keys to a Top-Tier Virtual Team

Is this your view from the front line?

“I have been part of a virtual team for the last 2 years. We have our web developer in Los Angeles, USA; our lead graphic designer is in Vancouver, Canada with his own team located throughout the country; our photographer works from his home in San Francisco, USA; our online sales technician is in Stockholm, Sweden and the software we sell from the website is created in Dehli, India and Santa Clara, USA. I’ve spoken to everyone via Skype and once or twice on the phone, but I only met one of them face-to-face at the beginning of the project – and that was by accident at a company conference.”

Virtual teams and managing projects with people in remote “offices” has become a fact of business life. However, being efficient and productive as a team is still few and far between. What does it take to run an effective, top-tier team that shares goals and project deadlines, but not office space?

First, let’s all get on the same page…I am defining a virtual or remote team as any work group which:

  1. has core members who have a shared project goal
  2. interact primarily through electronic means
  3. are dependent upon each other for the outcome – i.e. they’re not merely a group of independent workers.

A virtual team may consist of individuals who work from home or from a network of smaller offices, which is often the case when companies acquire other companies. With large, international corporations, virtual teams may also consist of people working in global offices at multiple locations.

We have interviewed dozens and dozens of leaders of effective virtual teams and combined that with our own work, which focuses on teaching managers to become leaders by navigating the special needs of today’s workforce. Here are five basic keys to lay the foundation for top-tier performance of your virtual team:

  1. Physically meet – early and often! I know a statement like that can seem to contradict the entire article on effective remote management and virtual teams, but face-to-face communication and team building is still essential to building relationships and developing trust, the building block for effective teamwork. Use the time to get to know one another through ice-breakers, creating your shared vision and creating a common language for success.

If you can’t get together in person, all is not lost. But you must commit time for the team to get to know each other. The same thing can be done virtually. We suggest using a resource like The Big Book of Virtual Teambuilding Games or 50 Digital Team Building Games.

If you have an ongoing project you should get your team together every 120 days, or once per quarter. Some meetings can be longer, 2-5 days, and some can be part of a common event, conference or business building retreat. Any way you go about it, you must commit to bringing the team together in person. This allows people to get out of their heads and all the made up stories about fellow team members and connect over creative and inspiring conversation.

  1. Processes and Procedures beat goal and roles! Although every leader must establish team goals, roles and who is responsible for what…virtual teams create an inherent challenge to this need. Rather than having a group of people that share time and space, office hours and common workstations, when managing virtual teams you often have individuals who are motivated by very different things. It becomes most important to focus on processes and procedures so that critical information is available to anyone at anytime.

By focusing on what information needs to be shared, and exactly where, in what form, and by when you can release all the time spent worrying and wondering HOW your team is collecting and sharing the information.

SIMPLIFY the processes to focus on the shared results. Do not spend time and energy finding out if your team spent the “right amount of time” in the “right” location to get the results. This can be accomplished through a number of online tools. We recommend focusing on tools that reduce the amount of email “conversations” going back and forth amongst team members. Shared collaboration applications that include wiki pages, file storage and messaging are a great place to start. We use Samepage for this purpose at our company – write to us at apps@creativeageleadership.com to talk more about the collaboration tools we use.

And for day to day communication and chit-chat, we suggest having a virtual “water cooler.” Instant messaging with the ability to create persistent, virtual rooms works great for this purpose (HipChat is one example). Then your virtual team can engage in the quippy, fun and seemingly useless banter that actually creates a culture of innovative, inclusive and bold personalities that get you, and your projects, to the front of the business line.

  1. Assess and Release. Ideally, when tasks need to be assigned, they will be given to the person most aligned to the required outcome that motivates him or her.

For example, you would not want to assign information gathering phone calls to a person who is motivated by producing finished reports. But your team would benefit by assigning calls to a person that was motivated by relationship building and personally knowing their resources.

An assessment can help managers understand precisely ‘who’ they have on their team. We recommend the Core Values IndexTM (CVITM) by Taylor Protocols because it gets to core motivations. It is not a personality test. The results of the CVI do not change over a person’s lifetime, so they can be used to match people to the type of work they naturally love to do.

Knowing individual team members core motivation allows you to design projects that are truly representative of what makes each person feel fulfilled. Working with a virtual team can leave people feeling isolated, but if you know what motivates each person, you can bring out the best in them – and enable EVERYONE to give their highest and best contribution.

  1. Can you hear me now communication? As we’ve seen there are many communication and collaboration technologies on the market – ranging from shared workspaces to HD, multi-point video conferencing – that can make virtual management easier. However, none of them are worth a penny if the majority of time is spent making the nuances of the technology work. Sacrifice features for ease of use that supports the collaboration effort.

Team leaders must reach out for one-on-one check-ins and communication in order to get a true sense of where the project is heading and how progress is coming along. A personal, voice communication (historically known as a phone call or in-person meeting) is imperative at least every other week. This allows a team to develop a rhythm of working with at least one other person. Voice meetings with the full team are effective if they’re kept short – use these for minor check-ins and communicating information (one-way).  Schedule longer conversations for detailed, two-way project updates to be done one-on-one or with a smaller sub-set of the team. Fundamental, creative brainstorming should be done in person. There’s just no getting around being in the same room when a large degree of interaction is required.

  1. Share a bigger piece of the pie. Members of virtual teams can become very focused on their own part of a project. To make sure everyone on the team always knows how they fit into the big picture, an effective leader consistently communicates the overall vision, mission and goals for the company and for the group.

The intention of virtual team members is to create “the best” version of their part of the project, which can result in an over abundance of features, procedures or “bells and whistles” that do not really matter. If a leader is waits too long or is not effective at sharing the overall vision, a team member may pour a lot of time, energy and financial resources into a “golden feature” that must eventually be removed. That leaves everyone with a bad feeling – the individual that worked so hard to make it “the best” and the manager who is left trying to explain why the project is past due and over budget.

An easy fix is to start each meeting with the overall goal, objective and vision of the full picture – then concentrate on the pieces and parts.

The bottom line to remember is that leaders can manage process, procedures and outcomes, but they must communicate with people. When charged with leading a virtual team, it is best to know the individual motivations of the members and then design your project with the people in mind. Once processes and procedures are established for the team, if members leave or need to be replaced you have robust systems in place that make it easy for new people to come up to speed.

If you want to learn more about how to manage the ever-changing special needs of today’s workforce, you can contact Creative Age Leadership to schedule your consult. We definitely have a system or program that can accelerate your team and business to the next level.

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