In a traditional setting, managers can communicate and team build informally by chatting to staff they encounter during the day, at their desks, before and after meetings, in the staff restaurant.
They can observe their staffs’ habits, skills, strengths and weaknesses. They can engage with them socially after hours, and organise team building events. They can spend a few minutes asking about their family, weekend, holiday plans.
Traditional managers can ignore technical tools such as email and video conferencing and manage in the traditional way, preparing hard copy hand-outs for meetings, inviting people to meetings on the day as they consider the agenda.
A virtual manager can’t use chance encounters to develop relationships with their staff. They must be much more tech savvy and more organised. They can’t call a meeting on the day, as staff will probably be out and about, dealing with business. They need to plan and schedule “meetings “or contacts in advance, develop and disclose meeting agenda, and email out briefing information in advance.
So the virtual manager must be better at planning and organising their own time, and that of their team members. They must be tech savvy.
Effective Team Building
A traditional manager can build the team by developing personal relationships with each member. They can organise meetings with a social slant, say over lunch or in a restaurant. They can organise social events and get togethers, even including partners and family on occasion.
In a virtual team this is much more difficult, because the team members may not be known to each other. Their past achievements, experience and strength are not known, nor are their agendas, priorities and role. This will be particularly true if the team is a temporary one, established for a project, or a cross functional one.
It is useful to get people together occasionally if possible so that people can put a name to a face and develop peer to peer relationships
There are ways to do this virtually. Managers can arrange a virtual space to allow staff to interact informally. Each team member could be encouraged to develop a bio, explain their background and skills, particular strengths or relevant experience. Include some personal information, and a photo to encourage team building chat about family and holidays.
This can help team members feel less isolated, and enable some collaboration. Productivity will probably improve as issues are tackled collaboratively and ideas pooled.
It should also ensure an “us and them” attitude does not develop, as it should enable a better mutual understanding. Managers might be well advised to monitor the site for feedback and tackle any issues that come up.
Build trust and effective communication
A large part of the manager’s job is to build trust between themselves and the team member, between the individual members, across different locations, between the teams and head office management team. They are the bridge that links all the parts together.
They need to define the key communications contacts, minimise isolation, build effectiveness and productivity, and celebrate team success and individual success.
Managers need to establish team norms, establish the team culture ,work habits, hours worked, develop and disseminate best practices, pace of work, standards attained.
Support struggling team members
Remember communication is key. It is an important part of the manager’s role to support team members who are struggling. Maybe they are new to the team , or have just hit a difficult patch, or have developed some bad habits. It is vital to keep communication lines open with them.
Consider an end of day phone call with them each day for a couple of weeks, to review the day’s events, offer advice and guidance to get them back on track.
Another effective tool can be end- of -week reports where necessary, to get a detailed outline of what they’ve done that week and guide them where they’ve gone wrong or could perhaps improve.
A weekly conference call can be useful to keep everyone “in the loop” and update the team on progress, and maintain contact between everyone.
Business process effectiveness
The manager will need to devote time and expertise to coordinating the work of a virtual team, ensuring consistency of outputs in terms of quality, timing, reporting and outputs. Project tracking is a key skill here.
Team member effectiveness
In a virtual team, there may be issues such as, whose budget does the team members time come from, how much time should you expect from them, are your priorities their priorities? Can someone else demand team member’s time and attention?
In this instance it is important to clearly define expectations and processes, schedule formal and informal meetings, define reporting requirements, document management processes, quality standards, outputs workflow.
Utilising global time differences
Virtual teams can be useful to take advantage of time difference if some validation activity is required during a process. For example if copy needs to be proof read, or a piece of software tested, it can be sent to another time zone to be proofed or tested while the writer is asleep, and the results will be ready for them to review when they return to work the following day . This can also be effective for a process with several steps involved.
As almost all communication will be via technology it will be crucial to ensure all technologies used are compatible. If one team in London is using a different Operating System or Media Editing tool from their counterparts in New York, there will be trouble ahead!
In the same way the manager will need to establish consistent naming conventions, documentation, reporting, scheduling, and tracking and ensure strict version control is in place.
There are many forms of technology that will support a virtual team manager, make use of several or all to achieve effective communication and team building:-
Texts, mobile calls, video conferencing, instant messaging, web meetings, web based phone calls, emails, twitter, and blogs.
Understand local business practices and laws
Be aware of the business practices in areas where you have teams. Some regions do not enforce Intellectual Property law, copyright law, or non-disclosure agreements. Legislation around employment law and redundancy payments varies enormously, and this may cause you to take a different view on staffing in other regions
In summary some top tips;-
- Plan and organise. You need to utilise your own time and your staff’s, to make every moment effective. Prepare for meetings, publish the agenda in advance, invite people in good time, have regard for their scheduling.
- Set expectations. Define who, what, when, where, how. Define deadlines outputs , quality, responsibilities
- Communicate clearly, offer a consistent Vision to the team.
- Balance your team, use people with complementary skills. Try to have some people on your virtual team who know how the company works.
- Build your team by providing a forum with pictures and bios, and allow interaction between members
- Schedule informal time, always find a moment to ask after them and their family, their interests. Try to hold team building events, even if they are online
- Support any members of your team who are underperforming, this is an important part of the manager’s role . Establish regular Communication with them.