11 Tips for Managing Virtual Teams
March 16, 2011 10 Comments
It’s great to have a team reporting to you that is like one big family all working toward a common goal . . . but easier said than done, especially in this global economy. In fact, it’s been more than a decade since I was able to sit in the same room with my direct reports every day. Most recently, I’ve managed a department in upstate New York from Atlanta, one in New York City from Atlanta and, now, one in India and the Philippines from Elgin, Illinois!
The first thing to know is that, when building a virtual team, you have to search for different qualifications than you otherwise might. Employees must be more mature (in terms of work habits) and independent. Those that have to be micromanaged or are weak on problem-solving tend to flounder in this kind of environment.
But even if you have the best team members with all of the right traits and experience, a virtual team poses numerous challenges. Although you might have overseen outside agencies, technology providers and other companies, this is a different relationship. With internal personnel, you have the added challenge of building teamwork and enhancing employee satisfaction. If you don’t take proactive measures, your department will be a revolving door with people leaving faster than you can hire and train them.
With that in mind, here are few lessons I’ve learned that may help you oversee your virtual teams effectively, as well as improve relationships with employees right in your office.
1. Build teamwork.
This seems pretty obvious, but I’m not talking about teamwork with you, but between your direct reports. It is important to have individual conversations to answer questions and provide feedback, but team members also need to come together (at least once per week, in my opinion) so they can hear what everyone else is doing. This allows people to feel like they are part of a group, even if they have different activities. When there are dependencies, this is a good way to establish and agree on priorities. A fresh set of eyes generates suggestions for solutions and new ideas. Another benefit is that team members start to work directly together versus using the supervisor as a conduit—saving time and improving output.
If you are the person who is not co-located with the team, have them all together in one room when you host meetings. And try to visit them as frequently as your budget will allow. When I ran a team based in New York from Atlanta, I came to town once per month and spent quality time with everyone, including sitting down and having lunch to talk about everything but work. Unfortunately, it’s a little harder and more expensive now to get to India and the Philippines regularly!
2. Have a regular communication schedule.
Aside from vacation days, illness and the occasional conflict, establish a routine and stick to it. We all need some predictability so we can manage our time and structure actually helps us deal better with those inevitable unexpected projects. I send out project lists on Sundays or early Monday mornings—everyone knows they are coming and what to look for. Then we have a meeting to kick off the week and review the lists. It’s simple, but it works.
You will have to manage your time wisely to allow time to communicate and organize the team’s activities (see my blog post on time management). You may also have to change your hours to accommodate different times zones. Since our team came together, I start my day much earlier (yes, before 5:00 a.m. most days—ouch!), take a break when I can and extend it later because Marketing is working from about 3:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Central Time. It might take some experimenting to see what makes the most sense.
3. Provide insight on what you do.
Whenever we have group meetings, I try to share my weekly priorities. My role is to lead projects, meet deadlines and mentor but I also have my own projects. The rest of the Marketing Team doesn’t get involved with new product development, public relations, internal communication and strategy development at this point, but these are big parts of my role. I think it is necessary to show everyone else how your time is spent beyond what they can see each day—that’s what being a team is all about.
4. Talk about company developments.
One of the biggest challenges in a global and/or virtual company is informing employees on goals, direction, accomplishments, and ongoing development. There can be newsletters, weekly memos, tweets and even ticker tape parades but people will still miss the information. Be sure your direct reports know about clients coming to visit, new policies, staffing changes in other departments, and other news. I’m not talking about divulging confidential items or spreading gossip. Rather, to have a sense of company, team members need to know what is going on and should hear it from you versus the rumor mill. When our CEO visited India a couple of weeks ago, I let Unmana know immediately. It was a good thing, since he subsequently requested a meeting with her and she had several extra days to prepare.
They should also have context for their projects. In other words, why are we changing our tagline, what do we hope to gain from attending a new trade show, what is the message we are trying to communicate? When I asked for the fifth change to a cover of a brochure last week, it was not surprising or frustrating to the designer because he knew the problem we were trying to solve. You can’t do everything and the more you share with team members, the faster they learn and start suggesting new and varied approaches you never considered . . . and that are better than yours!
5. Take advantage of technology.
With web cams, IM, Skype, Webex, social media and other options today, you can be talking to your team members all day long even if you are on other conference calls (not that this ever happens to me!). But use the technology to make the interaction more “human” versus hiding behind it. The more you can do to put faces and personalities on each employee, the easier it is to work together. Our team loved seeing the wedding photos from Mel’s sister because we got to see more than a thumbnail photo of him on Skype!
I also like to be familiar with the space where my team members work; whether it is a cubicle in one of our facilities or their living rooms. It sounds crazy, but I recently sent Unmana a photo of my cat because, when I’m at the home office, he likes to jump into my lap just as I get deep into writing. She got a view of my office and that sparked a whole conversation on making the work space pleasant and conducive to productivity. If you can’t always see a person, it’s nice to be able to envision them during a conversation.
6. Keep in mind what you can and can’t do from a distance
Since I can’t personally be in the office with my team, I try to make sure they have all they need in terms of tools, space and support. They have designated contacts at our facilities to help them with these kinds of requests and I also consider things like where they are situated so they can be close to other employees for professional support personal connections. No one wants to be treated like a badge number.
7. Don’t replace conversation with written instructions.
We’ve all experienced a situation when someone misinterpreted a line in an email or the intended tone of a note. For that reason, it is critical to have frequent live conversations so your team can better understand your speech patterns, slang, sense of humor, etc., especially when they are in different countries. And if you are in doubt, clarify and confirm understanding frequently (see Unmana’s post on working virtually).
8. Consider snail mail.
Even when team members are on the other side of the world from you, you can distribute publications, books and even gifts and mementos as yet another way to connect. When working in the same office, it’s easy to pick up a box of donuts to for the group. You have to try harder when people are remote. I still haven’t found a way to share my cookies and cakes with the team but they are probably happy not to deal with the extra calories.
9. Understand individual needs.
Based on the type of job or the requirements, some team members may need more frequent conversations and/or guidance. Good leaders know that all employees have individual needs and require different management styles to maximize their performance and their job satisfaction. Those project lists I send are different based on the employee function because they are custom to the roles and responsibilities, as well as the approach of team members. I also take into account that some like communicating via Skype and others are writers who like the longer email format. Some are talkative and others have to be drawn into discussions. Keep working to figure out the right questions to ask to develop the appropriate style.
10. Connect their work to the company.
Especially when spread out, it becomes even more important for each individual to see how he or she contribute to the greater framework. With all of the work we did for Go Red, I shared the great response we got before, during and after the event (link to blog post). When an internal customer loves a new ad concept, I make sure to send the kudos to Unmana.
And if you personally get a rave review on a project as the head of the group, make sure to give the team credit and then let them see or hear the feedback. They should be aware of the response to their work.
11. Make friends.
One last piece of advice is to get to know team members personally. While it is great to be able to run into someone in the hall or catch up on how the kids are doing while getting some coffee, you can still do this with a virtual team. Use IM to ask how someone’s weekend went. Share photos from your vacation via email. Talk about the latest book you read on a Skype chat (Unmana and I love to do this). Otherwise, you run the risk of being nothing more than a disconnected email address and/or voice and who wants to work for “Big Brother?”
Whether sitting right next to you or in another time zone, your team members are your most valuable resource—I should know because I’m short on both time and budget! It takes more effort to bring them together when they are virtual, But the rewards are far greater because, together, you can produce fantastic work, expand your own perspective and learn so much while teaching. The Affinity Express Marketing Team is a great example of this and I look forward to getting to working with them every day—even at 5:00 a.m.!
If you have other suggestions to add on managing a global department, I’d love to hear them.