Managing virtual teams is often necessary
In our increasingly connected world, we often need to connect with the best people regardless of their location. And travel can be very expensive and time consuming, thus taking away from productivity. So we need to make a choice – either limit our pool of people to those in proximity, or set up for managing virtual teams.
No doubt, managing a virtual team takes a very different approach than face-to-face. But it can be highly successful! I have written previous articles about the concepts and techniques of virtual team building. But now, I would like to introduce some specific tools which I have found very helpful in managing virtual teams.
Consider your objectives
The first thing to be aware of is that managing virtual teams takes more planning and preparation. But the result is, that you can be highly productive in short meetings. So start with considering the objectives of each interaction. For example – is it team building? Brainstorming? Project Planning? Monitoring?
So often we set up “regular” meetings without really considering the objective. The agenda may be either vague or loaded with an endless list of issues. Whether it’s a virtual meeting or face-to-face, we just can’t expect to get good results unless we are clear on what we want to accomplish. Knowing our end goal, we can then determine the correct tools and process to generate the results we need.
For example – email can be an effective tool for sending out information. You can get a lot of information out to a group quickly, and ensure everyone receives the same thing. But it is not terribly effective for discussions. The different threads of email can quickly get overwhelming, and people can become confused.
Consider logistics, such as time zones
It will take some juggling to find times that work for meetings of people in different time zones. So consider – do discussions always need to be “live”? Obviously there are times when people need to get together on a call to discuss issues. But some of the interaction can be asynchronous – happening at different times. That is, you can post a question during your regular work schedule, and people in other time zones can respond as they are available.
You probably need a mix of live discussion (synchronous) and asynchronous interaction to be most efficient. Asychronous collaboration tools allow people to interact throughout the week, rather than waiting for the set conference call.
Incorporate online team building
You will need to make an extra effort to ensure that people get to know each other and develop trust. This may happen more naturally in a face-to-face environment, but it can certainly be done effectively for virtual teams. You as a manager can facilitate this team building by ensuring it gets built into the agendas and work flow. There may be some awkwardness at first for those that haven’t worked in a virtual environment. But you can ask people to talk about themselves, share photos and profiles, or perhaps even video profiles.
My favorite tools
Not only for scheduling meetings (which I make sure I get in the calendar far ahead!), but also sharing deadlines for deliverables and milestones. I use Google Calendar to ensure and share important dates and times with my teams. If I set for my own time zone, they can then view it in their own time zone. And I like that it pops up reminders well in advance.
Email does have it’s place
I do use email to send out information such as agendas and background information. And I also send out notes and action items from our online meetings. This ensures everyone gets the info, and I also have a record to follow up and check on how team members are progressing with action items. I set up different folders to track different teams and projects.
While I have my own company email, I tend to use gmail with my remote teams, because it integrates with Google and other tools.
Slack is an asyncronous collaboration tool that allows teams to set up conversations. The advantage of this over email is that it keeps a running dialogue that you can scroll through to catch up on discussions (and not have the frustration of trying to find the most recent email!). Teams can also set up different discussion channels, so that they can track different aspects of the project. It makes it simple if teams want to break out into smaller discussion groups.
Another advantage is that you can integrate documents as needed from Dropbox and Google Drive. This is helpful to have everything you need for discussion in one spot.
Google drive (docs)
This is great when teams are working collaboratively on a document or report. We can actually edit live while on a conference call and see what each other are adding. The one down side of this tool is that it can be easy to accidentally over-write or delete someones work. So be sure to back up critical documents often!
This is good for more static documents. I often use it to keep research material, records and completed reports for future reference. Although I can grant team members access to read and edit, they need to make copies of the files to actually edit them. So there’s less chance of accidental over-write. However, it’s not as effective as google docs for synchronous collaboration.
Talking live is important for the team to develop their relationship, and to discuss complex issues. Although there are probably better tools out there for conference calls, almost everyone has skype and is familiar with it. Team members can make notes in the IM window, share links and share their screens if needed. And most people have it on their phones, so they can still connect when they are away from their desks.
Have you found other simple and low cost tools that are helpful for managing virtual teams? Please share.
More Resources for Managing Virtual Teams
Read our recent article: 4 Steps for Managers to Establish Productive Remote Teams
Contact us for a FREE copy of our Remote Team Quick Start Guide for Managers
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