Best Practices: Managing a Virtual Team

The 21st century promised us a completely virtual future; one where we would attend board meetings as holograms (think Darth Vadar and the Emperor in Empire Strikes Back), teams would have little structure, and freedom would lead to copious productivity. Reality reveals that our sci-fi driven expectations shadow reality, but don’t necessarily define it.

Virtual teams can and do work, but they need structure and guidelines to manage the flexibility that running or working on such a team requires. Having managed a mostly virtual team for 2-years now I have learned that everything from selection of homebasers to platform choices must be considered and revisited as you go. What follows are some best practices I have learned:

  1. The Right People – not everyone is right for home-basing or virtual work.  When I  started managing a mostly home-based team I had to get used to the midnight email responses to questions I had asked at the end of the day.  At first I tried to manage this practice, urging my team not to log on after work hours (after all, we only paid them on the expectation that they worked 35 hours a week).  Once I started home-basing a bit myself, I realized that this was more for their convenience of taking care of little things when they had an extra moment than my need for their response first thing in the morning (these guys were not sitting at their computers for hours after hours; they were leaving the computer on and quickly responding to quick items).  Ultimately, the home-baser should be someone who knows how to stay in touch during work hours, has flexibility in their response to challenges, and can effectively communicate using all forms of contact (email, phone, IM, Share Point, social media, etc.); this segues into the next point…
  2. The Right Technology – this is so crucial when managing a virtual team.  In my experience, using phone, email, IM, Share Point (described next), social media platforms, and video conferencing can help a virtual team feel closer.  We have yet to do a full pilot of video conferencing for the team, but having used it individually, seeing faces of home-based employees during a conversation makes a difference
  3. The Right Collaboration – Share Point technology has helped our team stay connected.  Some of the ways we use it:
    • Discussion Boards – post a discussion thread for anything that requires feedback from more than 2 people.  This results in a continuous discussion rather than disjointed discussions via email.  All responses are centralized in one place and can inform future best practices
    • Shared Documents – working documents, tracking sheets, and presentations are the types of documents we tend to store centrally
    • Wiki – (my favorite feature) we use in 4 ways: documenting evolving best practices, posting team meeting agendas, project work, and individual status sheets.  The beauty of wiki lies in the “History” feature which tracks all changes made from the beginning of the page posting.  Also the interlinking of information between pages and items on SP or other sites makes wiki an essential collaboration tool for the virtual team
  4. The Right Feedback – evaluating and giving feedback to any team can be uncomfortable, unless of course it good feedback, but with the virtual team, engaging in regular feedback is crucial.  These are people who can’t read your body language when they see you by the water cooler, so giving feedback in varied forms (written, phone, public recognition, etc.) goes a long way.
  5. The Right Mission – more so than any other team, the virtual team requires a clear mission and an evolving process.  Repetition of the goal, the process, and the current progress is key.  For people working off-site, it is easy to find their own best way of doing things, which can result in losing sight of the team direction and preferred practices.  When it leads to necessary change based on collaborative and incremental adjustments, such independence becomes a source of innovation, but when it results in fragmentation and inefficiency the virtual worker becomes a detractor.  Not every industry, company, or mission needs teams, (see Why Teams Don’t Work, An Interview with J. Richard Hackman by Diane Cout in this month’s Harvard Business Review), but the fact remains that most businesses do use teams, and for those who make use of virtual teams articulating these points must be done.
  6. The Right Meet – finally, nothing helps build a virtual team more than a meeting in the “meat world.”  Having some face-to-face time scheduled for annual conferences or even special visits can add greatly to the progress and connection a virtual team makes with each other.

These five suggestions are just a few of the things I try to do with my virtual team.  What best practices do you use with your virtual team?

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