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Managing Virtual Teams

By Katherine Craig

Ottawa Human Resource Professionals Association, Up-Date Magazine, May 2012

If everyone is moving forward together,
then success takes care of itself.
- Henry Ford

The corporate world has seen an explosion of virtual teams: departments whose members are scattered in branches across town, across the country, around the globe. The exponential advancement of IT has facilitated this phenomenon, however not all the stakeholders in this new "office" environment have adapted to the changing climate. Is your workplace suffering because of a poorly functioning virtual team?

  • Are meetings being cancelled, or are the meetings strained?
  • As a leader, are you unable to write performance evaluations for the remote members of your team with confidence?
  • Are problems only discussed when they become crises?
  • Are your business targets falling short of expectations?

These are some of the key indicators that your virtual team isn't functioning at peak performance. It's important to bear in mind that a virtual team can operate just as effectively as a collocated one. The only limiting factor is your willingness to adapt your style to suit the new environment. Consider these "Best Practices" when developing your team, or seeking to improve your performance as a member of a team:1

Establish and Maintain Trust. Without the benefit of face-to-face contact, it will be vital to create an atmosphere of clarity and trust. As a leader, this means setting out clear procedures for sharing information, i.e. what can be shared, how will it be shared (by which means of technology) and how that information will be addressed. As a member of the team, this means being completely transparent in your communication. For example, if you can't attend a virtual meeting, be honest; don't just skip it and hope you won't be conspicuous in your absence.

Encourage and Leverage Diversity. Your team is made up of individuals with wide-ranging personalities and diverse skills. Acknowledging and appreciating this diversity will give your team a competitive edge. Set an example for your team and they'll likely start looking for ways to collaborate with one another, building on strengths.

Use Technology to Monitor Team Performance. Don't rely solely on email: think multi-media. You can streamline workflow and facilitate fact-finding with threaded discussions, online document updating and web conferencing. There is a wealth of online tools that will aid in the tracking of a project, and new ones appearing all the time; watch for tools that work and try them as they evolve.

Enhance Your Team's Visibility. You don't want your team to be "out of sight, out of mind" on the company landscape. Make sure you keep your team, and its accomplishments, visible by sharing successes with the organization, e.g. through the corporate or departmental newsletter. If you've been using the appropriate tracking tools and communicating with your team it won't be hard to identify the victories your team has enjoyed, or the knowledge base they've developed to accomplish specific business objectives.

Recognize and Reward Your Team Members. A solid recognition program is the galvanizing ingredient for any team, and it's absolutely vital for a virtual one. Ideally, you'll have regular retreats (two or three a year) so that your entire team can gather together and, in addition to strategy and educational sessions, you can stage an awards ceremony as part of the program. If that's not possible, though, you can hold a virtual award ceremony during one of your web conferences, and it's always a great idea to begin any meeting with a lightening round of success sharing among the team members. Get creative: have coffee and snacks delivered to each office or hold an Internet scavenger hunt.

No matter your role on the virtual team, you must focus on trust and engagement as the underpinnings for success. As the leader, this means not only recognizing success, but also setting the team up for success by encouraging innovation. For example, take time to ask for ideas, and then act on those ideas. This doesn't necessarily mean following the input verbatim; the process of talking through an idea is a valuable exercise, one that will instruct and engage your team members, giving them "skin in the game".

As a member of a virtual team, this trust and engagement will come in the form of clear communication with your boss, including your expectations for the frequency and nature of your communication. If a regular five-or-ten minute daily phone call to check in, or a one-line e-mail confirmation from your boss confirming receipt of a status update provides the support and feedback you need, you'll have to say so. If you're lacking resources you'll have to speak up. If you have questions or concerns about an issue specific to your region, you'll have to explain them in clear terms, giving both the content and the context for the issue. Your boss isn't there on the ground, so the more information you provide, the better able she'll be to help you solve the problem.

Virtual teams can be incredibly dynamic, creative and productive. The key to their success is an equal investment on the part of both leaders and team members so that information flows in a way that fosters trust and transparency. Through the judicious use of the many technological tools available and a consistent, mutual effort to communicate, team performance can be elevated to extraordinary levels.

1Malhotra, A., Majchrzak, A., Rosen, B. 2007, Leading Virtual Teams, "Academy of Management Perspectives", No. 2, p. 60

Katherine Craig is the founder & CEO of Spearhead Executive Coaching, a dynamic organization dedicated to helping individuals and companies achieve greater success through the delivery of high-performance coaching programs. To comment on her story, send a message to Katherine@spearheadexecutivecoaching.com.