“Teamwork is working together even when apart.” (Anonymous)
Anticipating the difficulties of coordinating a team made of virtual workers can be a daunting prospect to a lot of people, especially new entrepreneurs who’re already dealing with the struggles of a start-up.
Theoretically, having a virtual team is the best solution to better work-life balance, long commutes, and high operation expenses. Studies have shown that companies who allow their employees to telecommute have lower attrition, and higher productivity. Yet, many people think the cons outweigh the pros when it comes to managing virtual teams. Time differences, bandwidth capabilities, communication methodologies, and other challenges to collaboration can set the dream up for failure.
Like any relationship, one element has greater weight in determining success – communication. This is especially crucial in bridging the distance that comes inherent with working remotely. Because a corporate culture is harder to establish when team members aren’t sharing the same space, clarity of communications is vital.
“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” (Henry Ford)
Some tips to keep in mind for managers to lead their virtual teams into success are:
1. When hiring virtual team members, define realistic expectations clearly.
“When he took time to help the man up the mountain, lo, he scaled it himself.” (Tibetan Proverb)
There are three important factors to this first step:
a) Definition of expectations.
There is innate tendency for people to assume that others process information and perform tasks the same way they do, and this is a big deterrent to being able to establish a list of expectations that everyone can follow.
As a business owner or manager, the first step is figuring out what your priority is. When managing virtual teams (or even any team), outline your expectations. Do you expect daily reports, or regular consulting sessions? Or do you just want them to finish their tasks in a timely manner?
Inform your team of the method of communication you prefer. If they have a different style from yours, an adjustment period is probably necessary; in addition to guidelines set if your team needs to reach you during emergencies.
b) Expectations must be realistic.
Hiring the right people to join your team is of utmost importance. Because there is less supervision in virtual work, you need to be sure you find people who can fit into this working style. Interview them via different communication channels – checking how well they correspond via email, phone and text, the main channels of communication, are vital since the way they communicate will have a direct effect on the success of the team.
Putting someone whose skills are in virtual assistance into a data analyst role won’t be fair to anyone. There is no way for him to succeed if the decks are stacked against him from the beginning.
Examine the need you expect them to fulfill. Hire the person you require today, even if you anticipate a need for that person’s abilities in the future. If you cannot use their skills at present, they are a bad hire.
c) Communicate expectations clearly.
When you’ve communicated your expectations and policies, ask your team to parrot them back to you in their own words. Being able to repeat what you have told them will illustrate their own understanding of your expectations and highlight the areas that may need further clarification.
2. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
The time is ripe for virtual teams. We possess a vast arsenal of applications and technology that makes communication so much easier.
Set clear guidelines on:
a) The medium of communication.
Provide written guidelines on which systems need to be used for which forms of communication, how you expect team members to communicate with each other, including etiquette, what language to avoid (this will be especially applicable for teams who have different cultures or who don’t speak the same language), and others.
b) Regular check-ins or meetings.
Touching base with all employees regularly will provide remote workers with a sense of teamwork and camaraderie they may otherwise miss from doing remote work. Video conferences can help put a face to names you email and members you work with but may not get the chance to meet in person.
Regular meetings will also reinforce the communication culture you’re trying to establish. Practice effective communication and your team members will follow.
3. Foster a culture of trust and collaboration.
Define a clear mission and vision statement that will remind your team of its shared goals. This will provide remote workers with a sense of community and belonging, and positively contribute to team collaboration and cooperation.
Create a clear organizational hierarchy so team members know who they work with and answer to, so confusion is avoided and team bonding is reinforced.
“A successful team is a group of many hands but of one mind.” (Bill Bethel)
4. Success should be measurable.
How will your remote workers know if they’ve succeeded in their tasks or failed in them? Establishing clear metrics on success will guide your people, whether virtual workers or local ones, in determining if they are on the right track to success.
Develop processes for managers to check in with their people. Regular one-on-ones can help provide guidance and set aside time for workers to feel comfortable approaching their bosses with any concerns or just to share the status of their progress. Doing so will help you be certain team goals are aligned, and everyone is working together to achieve success.
“The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.” (Phil Jackson, retired American basketball coach and player)
To summarize: managing a virtual team can be challenging, but rewarding. When you set expectations and provide your remote workers with a clear list of written guidelines – on the roles they have to fill, the goals they need to achieve, the modes of communication that will be used, and your definition and gauges of success, you provide them with a shared vision that will enforce teamwork and collaboration, heighten productivity, and create a great remote corporate culture.