how to manage virtual teams

Virtual Team Building for Dispersed Organizations

What does it mean to manage a virtual team?

Virtual Team Building is increasingly important as businesses become more geographically distributed.   As we may lead teams of people in different countries and cultures, Managers will need new skills for to lead effective virtual teams.  But first of all, we need to understand the characteristics of a virtual team.  Let’s start with an example.

Case Study of a Virtual Team

Imagine that you are a manager in a small multinational company, with operations in 8 different countries.  You have been assigned a project to develop a new product line, suitable for deployment in all 8 countries.  So, you want to establish a small but highly effective team to start developing the concept.  Of course you want the best and brightest from your company.  But you also want to ensure there is representation from different divisions and geographic regions.

So, you start making a list of potential team members.  There’s George in Ireland – he has been heading up the Research and Development team there for 5 years.  Maria in Italy has a wonderful grasp of the different customers segments and their needs.  And in Argentina, there’s nobody that knows the production environment like Cal.  And we should probably have someone that really understands the supply chain, like Nancy in the U.S.

Establishing Your Virtual Team

While it would be ideal if you could bring all these people together for a few months, it just isn’t an option.  Your project is one of many that your company is working on.  Your team members will need to be maintaining their local operations while concurrently working on this project.  And you don’t have the budget for travel.   As you will need to work virtually, you will need to do some Virtual Team Building.

While we often hear that face-to-face is best, it isn’t always an option in a distributed work environment.  So we need to consider – what is it about the face-to-face environment that makes it “better”?  And how can we approximate that in a virtual environment?

What Do Virtual Teams Need to Be Effective?

Some say that we lose information because we lack the visual clues (body language, facial expressions).  But at a deeper level, I believe it comes down to the human relationship aspect.  With communication technology, we can easily share information – including visuals through video.  But it is much more difficult to get a sense of who someone “is”.  That is, their personality.

In a face-to-face environment, we don’t often think about how to draw out personalities.  Sometime, we use some warm up games and activities to get people to relax.  But often, relationships just happen during coffee breaks and lunch.  So we need to think about how to create this space for relationships to develop in the virtual environment.  And how can we ensure that those relationships will be positive and productive?

In my previous article on Diversity Team Building, I introduced the factors that enable a team to perform well.  So here, I will expand on those aspects that are specific to virtual teams.

Tips for Virtual Team Building

  1. When establishing your team, consider each members skills – not only in the technical aspect (their area of expertise, etc.), but in their ability to work well in a team environment. Remember that this virtual environment can be more challenging that the “regular” work place. So if they don’t have the ability to listen to others, be respectful and supportive – that can lead to problems for the entire team.

2. Make sure that each member is fully committed. Consider – what is their motivation to find the time and fully contribute energy to this project? Especially when we have to adapt to different time zones, use different technology, etc. For some, the excitement of working on something new may be enough. For others – it might be the idea of recognition or promotion. Others may need financial incentives, like a bonus. But if a team member is not sufficiently committed, once again, it can affect the entire team. If one person starts missing meetings, it can have a domino effect!

3. Provide the team with the tools, training and environment they need to be successful. And recognize that there will be different needs, particularly when you are working across different countries and cultures. My previous article 4 Tips for Cross Cultural Team Building provides some recommendations.

4. Allow space for relationship building. Just like coffee breaks and lunch during face-to-face meetings, people need time to connect on a personal level. I like to call the first meeting “setting up for success”. Rather than just jump right into the project, we take time for each person to tell something about themselves, ask each other questions and start to get a sense of each other. And while this is very important at the beginning of a project, we need to make sure this happens continually throughout the process. If we are all just down to business, we miss the opportunity to truly be a team.

5. Take action to manage engagement. That is, making sure that each team member is contributing to their fullest. This is the art and science of facilitation. Rather than directing the work, you are there to help the team with their process. Too much control can stifle innovation. Too little, and the project may never come to fruition.

What else should Managers expect with Virtual Team Building?

Above all, be patient!  If you are new to working in this environment, you may find it feels clumsy and awkward at times.  You may sometimes need to bring in a professional facilitator to help you through rough patches.  Like any other skill, Virtual Team Building takes time to develop.

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