With an even-increasing number of telecommuters and part-time workers operating in a growing global market place and with organisations and alliances becoming ever more geographically dispersed, working with or within virtual teams is becoming increasingly commonplace.

Recently I was involved in a Facebook debate where a friend had asked for some advice about keeping up morale, focus and momentum in a dispersed workforce that currently constitutes her entire business. I thought it might be interesting to elaborate on my initial short-form response and additionally incorporate a few of the other views that surfaced in that discussion.

Managing teams that are geographically dispersed and, therefore, primarily dependent on electronic means of communication has many challenges but most of these seem to stem from a single core issue – enabling effective collaboration. In this article I will take a quick look at a few critical areas that need to be addressed for your virtual team to gel.

“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don't play together, the club won't be worth a dime.” – Babe Ruth (Baseball Hall of Fame)

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Colocation enables frequent face-to-face communication on both professional and social levels. Face-to-face communication is contextually rich and subject to the norms of reciprocity arising from its intimacy. Consequently, trust is built more quickly and cohesion around a common identity forms more easily. The result, when it works, is more effective collaboration and greater overall levels of engagement, productivity and satisfaction. 

With virtual teams, the fragmentation and lack of immediacy makes things more difficult. Extra effort is needed to ensure we anticipate the potentially destabilising effects of isolation and multiple allegiances.

In the last ten or so years we have been equipped with many technological aids that both enable dispersed team working and help mitigate many of its shortcomings. Regardless of the chosen technological solution, however, there are some basic principles that must always be addressed. It is these fundamentals that are the focus of this article.

For any activity it is of critical importance that the reasons for doing it and the measures of success remain clear and unambiguous for all participants. This is not unique to virtual teams but since they are the first to become disconnected in highly dynamic situations they deserve extra attention.

When individuals have membership of multiple teams, their focus can be continually changing. I find that maintaining an outcomes focus with clear, concise objectives enables the kind of accountability that is essential for virtual teams to be effective.

With everyone clear on the ‘why’, a shared view of the big picture and how their contribution connects with the overall goals, it is easier for the whole team to stay on the same page. This is important because a collective responsibility helps build a shared identity and that, in turn, helps build trust.

I believe that teams should be designed into the solution architecture. By adhering to the twin key tenets of systems thinking, the workload can be decomposed and assigned for both coherence (eg. capability, timezone, cultural compatibility etc) and loose coupling (ie low interdependence and simple interfaces).

Once this approach has been adopted, accountability can be more easily devolved and successor task owners empowered to pull directly – interacting with equal authority over simpler communication channels. A clear and simple escalation pathway for out-of-scope decisions and arbitration should be established to support this.

As with any team member (local or dispersed), it is worthwhile to take the time to understand their values and motivators. With this in mind, to the greatest extent possible, you should not treat non-local team members as a separate team. Wherever practicable hold face-to-face meetings – especially at kick-off, wrap-up, to celebrate key achievements and perhaps annually just for fun. 

Where this is not possible I suggest you use a video-based tool to hold regular (weekly) and inclusive meetings. It is well understood that between 70% and 80% of communication is non-verbal so the importance of the video element should not be overlooked.

The focus of these regular meetings should be on sharing achievements, plans and issues to maintain alignment and manage expectations. This should include a regular look at the process of virtual working itself. As always, it is important to involve the whole team in the process of defining and solving problems associated with disconnected working and this can be a good opportunity for airing some of the more pressing issues.

The weekly meeting can also be a forum to help build relationships at a more social level by having someone share something that they’ve learned or are interested in. This concept of enabling interaction on both professional and personal levels is an important consideration.

Ideally, your ecosystem needs to provide both synchronous and asynchronous mechanisms for communication, data and knowledge sharing. Data security and the level of supporting infrastructure available may become an important consideration for non-office-based contributors but also more fundamental issues such as cultural and linguistic barriers need to be addressed. In fact, asynchronous media-rich communication (eg using photo/image-based reporting and video) goes a long way to help here because the information is easier to interpret and can be reviewed in slower time.

Typical synchronous tools include the ubiquitous teleconference, the (preferred) video-conference (incl. Skype, Google Hangouts, GoToMeeting et al.) and even instant-messaging systems.

A useful adjunct is that most of these tools have the ability to record the meetings so that material can be made available to team members unable to attend. Other asynchronous tools range from (unmanageable) email exchanges, to doc sharing with Dropbox or GoogleDocs, to shared network drives accessible by VPN, to Wiki-based collaboration tools like Confluence right up to enterprise heavyweight collaboration platforms like Sharepoint, Alfresco and Huddle incorporating workflow tools and endless customisation options.

Whatever way you go it is essential to have a central repository that provides what the military call a “Common Operating Picture” so that everyone can know what’s happening, what’s planned, what’s important, what is less so and have access to the latest version of critical reference material (subject to appropriate access controls).

Of course it’s not all about the professional interaction, important though the free flow of data and information is. Effective teams include a very important social element and that should not be overlooked. This is a key part of building trust that facilitates effective collaboration. Again, the solution typically involves both synchronous and asynchronous elements. 

Virtual lunches and chat-rooms can deliver a forum for synchronous social engagement. Facebook and LinkedIn groups can provide some low overhead asynchronous options while enterprise social network tools like Yammer (and others already mentioned above) can provide a closed alternative. For these type of systems to work well there needs to be a “Manager-free zone” that can serve as the a virtual ‘water-cooler’ or café area for ‘seriously open discussion’. Whatever is chosen it is important for the team to debate and evolve something that works for them and continually improve it as they go.

As a final point I will just touch on the need for a proactive and responsive support ecosystem. Depending on the complexity of the tools and platforms introduced there may be a need for significant training. At the very least there will be a need to establish protocols to both guide usage and govern behaviour. The use of local champions (especially as cultural ambassadors), mentors and buddy systems can also help cement expectations and the practice of holding ‘1-on-1s’ should be extended to the whole team and not just the local component.

As with all teams, public acknowledgement of accomplishments is an important motivator. Ensuring that such endorsement of success is widely broadcast can help enhance the sense of a common identity striving towards common goals. Newsletters, intranet systems and blogs all provide simple platforms for this.

Returning to the support ecosystem, it is worth mentioning that being especially responsive to the needs of off-site team members, prioritising their concerns and tackling issues aggressively is an important discipline for the management of virtual teams.

The benefits of working effectively with virtual teams include: access to a globally dispersed talent pool, exposure to a rich diversity of perspectives and ideas, schedule flexibility (incl. 24-hour working), geographic flexibility and potential cost savings to name but a few. Getting it right is worth the effort.

You don’t have to do everything that I’ve outlined above. By selecting and acting upon a few of the key points, the ones that resonate with you and your team, might transform both your options and your effectiveness. In summary:

1.    Have a clear and well communicated “why” with cascaded objectives and key results that are clear and mutually coherent

2.    Use a systems-thinking approach to work decomposition and assignment

3.    Enable and enforce accountability and facilitate lateral ‘pull’ interfaces and a simple escalation pathway for decisions

4.    Provide an ecosystem that supports both synchronous and asynchronous communication, data and knowledge sharing

5.    Emphasise the use of rich media (eg use photo/image-based reporting)

6.    Provide an ecosystem that supports both professional and personal/social interaction

7.    Provide regular inclusive communications supplemented with a proactive and responsive support ecosystem.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw (Playwright and LSE co-founder)

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AuthorTrevor Lindars