While most business managers are trained and experienced in overseeing teams in traditional office settings, virtual team management is a relatively recent global phenomenon. This means that most of us, regardless of the amount of experience we have in this area, can always learn more.
Unlike a traditional office setting, virtual team managers have to rely primarily on technology in order to collaborate, communicate and manage projects while trying to maintain a sense of unity and teamwork. Sounds simple, right?
Well, of course it’s not that easy. Whether you’re a brand new manager, or an experienced one looking for new ideas, here are our top five tips for managing virtual teams:
1. Spell it out
Before hiring virtual team members or embarking on a new team project, you’ll need to clearly define your expectations – otherwise known as ground rules. This should include a comprehensive orientation process for new hires, as well as detailed expectations, direction and objectives for everyone on the team. Make sure that team members know and understand their own roles, as well as the roles of their colleagues.
Leadership coach, speaker and author Kristi Hedges says a virtual team manager should focus more on clarifying the tasks themselves, rather than how individuals actually get their work done. In an article for Forbes, she wrote, “Be clear about expectations for deadlines, resolution of team issues, availability, and even communications,” she said. “Then get out of the way.”
2. Keep it personal
In a traditional office setting, lots of productive business meetings take place spontaneously … in the break room, over lunch or maybe during casual conversations in the parking lot. Virtual teams don’t allow for such encounters, which is why managers need to make regular and effective communication a high priority. While emails and texts are great, be sure to schedule regular video conferences, personal phone calls and periodic face-to-face meetings, when possible.
If your team members aren’t local or regional, be sensitive to time zones and cultural differences, as work styles can vary greatly. For instance, according to research by Steelcase, work cultures in the United States and Great Britain are similar to each other, but are vastly different from countries like Italy, China or Spain. If you have team members from different countries, do your best to learn about their respective cultures.
Get a closer look into some of the global cultural differences that can affect your team in this report that compares 11 different countries, “Same but Different: Mapping the Patterns of Work Cultures.”
3. Provide the right tools
One of the most important things you must do for your team is provide the right collaborative tools that allows them to communicate effectively, schedule projects, share information and complete tasks. You’ll also want to make sure they have access to video cameras, shared file directories, fast Internet service, and audio conference capabilities.
If getting organized or being productive from a remote location is a problem for your staff, offer help! This could be in the form of personal organizer services, or it could be access to books or other publications. For a list of virtual team resources, see our blog on Top Virtual Team Resources To Improve Your Team’s Efficiency.
4. Make meetings count
Because your meetings are virtual, you obviously won’t be able to hand out hard copy reference materials or share one physical document for comment and review, so you’ll have to plan ahead. Email important paperwork, links or related reference materials beforehand, giving your staff plenty of time to review them well in advance of the meeting.
Clearly indicate meeting start and end times, and stick to them. Prepare an agenda, and if you expect specific contributions from team members, be sure to give them a heads up in order to avoid putting them on the spot or wasting meeting time.
Even if your meeting is a video conference, be aware that you won’t be able to easily read body cues. Whether you facilitate the meeting, or you ask a team member to do so, make sure everyone has a chance to respond or contribute to the conversation. Indicate who you are speaking to by name, and check in frequently to gauge reactions and moods.
Allow time for casual chatter, if time allows, and try to engage all participants when possible. To make sure this happens, you should try to incorporate an open forum at the end of each agenda as a recurring element to help your team get to know each other better. You could also take this one step further by adding team building activities to your virtual meetings. A cohesive team is a successful team.
5. Celebrate success
When it comes to celebrating successful projects or personal milestones, virtual team members don’t have to miss out on all the fun! As team manager, it’s your job to boost morale and make sure your team feels appreciated!
If your team members live in the same area (or if they’re willing to travel), plan an in person outing. It could be a team-building event (like an outdoor obstacle course), a retreat, or a special dinner at a trendy restaurant. Whatever you choose, getting your staff together in order to recognize accomplishments will help keep those positive attitudes flourishing.
If your team can’t physically be together, have no fear. With a little imagination, you can still have fun, according to Wayne Turmel, CBS Money Watch contributor. For starters, he suggests you simply ask your team what they want. Find out what type of rewards will make them happy or feel appreciated!
Turmel’s other suggestions for virtual teams are:
- Make sure everyone is included in the celebration, even if it’s nothing more than a token conference call
- Make time off a shared experience
- Send the remote participants a party in a box with some treat or a token specific to the project/team, and
- Try online gaming or meetups.
Share Your Tips for Virtual Team Managers
We all have the potential to learn from each other in this area. So, if you have other thoughts and/or resources for the growing number of virtual team managers, please share your ideas in the comments below.