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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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Innovation: How Does Your Team Use Share Point

Since becoming a manager for my company in mid-2007 our team has gone through a Share Point revolution.  Early on, we saw the potential for this under-used tool, but had little experience using it.  We found the following uses to be helpful to us as a Content Development Team

Wiki – MS Share Point wiki capabilities pale in comparison to Telligent’s, but still provide a great platform for info sharing.  Here are some examples of what we have done in this space:

  • Team Status Sheets – employees keep a running tally of the projects and releases on their plate, using brief descriptions which can be shared/edited at any time by members of the wiki.  As the manager, I set alerts to tell me when an editor changes something, cutting down on the amount of email that gets generated.  The quick nature of the updates and tools allows us to cut down on chatter that can confuse projects.  And best of all – it is entirely searchable.
  • Team Meeting Agendas – rather than sending an attachment via email, which will need to be revised before the meeting, we found posting these as wiki pages allowed team members to add items at anytime prior to the meeting.  It then serves as the template for notetaking during the meeting (whether live on Live Meeting or posted later), and helps archive our meeting discussions, follow up items, and useful info, which can be turned into a best practice wiki page and linked to directly from the agenda.
  • Evolving Best Practice Pages – we use the wiki to keep a living journal of our best practices rather than keeping this information stored in emails or documentation.  This provides flexibility to edit as we learn better ways of doing things, more robust linking, and a collaborative approach on the team to deciding the best way to work.  By using the Wiki, rather than a shared document, people are less hesitant to make a change b/c they know how easy it is to go back to a prior version if a mistake or practice that the group doesn’t agree with gets entered.  On a shared document, track changes can serve this function, but there is margin for error if the person making the change doesn’t choose track changes or uploads a different version.  Wiki just makes this a simpler task
  •  Projects – we use the wiki as a collaborative space to do project work in.  Rather than have a version on everyone’s desktop, project proposals get entered on the wiki, worked on and tracked in that space, and discussed via email (unfortunately MS Share Point doesn’t support commenting/tagging like Telligent). 

Interdepartmental Document Library Allows Coordination of Tracking Sheets & Info – in Academic publishing we deal with partners in Production, Manufacturing, Marketing, Sales, Fulfillment, and Acquisitions.  While much email is still generated, we have found that tracking sheets and shared information works best when kept in a document library.  To that end, we created separate document libraries on a single share point for each of these departments.  Rather than sending large files via email, we point each other to links in the libraries.  Also, things like Sales Rep Reports and Marketing Intelligence get stored here as well.

What are some of the innovative ways others are using Share Point?

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