There are many advantages of virtual team working for both organisations and the individual. With continuing pressure on costs, more globalisation, more international, cross border trading, improvements in technology, etc, this trend is likely to continue.
But there are also some down sides. The first five of these are task related – as follows:
- Lack of ownership of issues/problems and tasks
- Lack of visibility of team members
- Meeting ineffectiveness
- Email overload
- Working across different time zones
Whilst the second five are softer, people/relationship issues:
- Struggle to build relationships and team spirit virtually
- Work-life balance issues
- Sensitive conversations are done poorly in a virtual environment
- Difficulty of understanding of some people’s accents or cultural differences
- Multifarious non working days
In order to make virtual working really effective, there are seven ”big components” which need to be addressed, and understood by all to ensure virtual working succeeds. These include:
1. Building Trust
Trust is the key component and the hardest to achieve quickly. This is only developed over time, often after the typical forming, storming and norming cycles. But it is essential, because without it, effective Virtual working and virtual team working are very difficult to achieve.
2. Improving Ways of Working /Collaboration
Ways of working can be broken down further into these components:
- Clear terms of reference/objectives/goals – must be much more precise
- Clear roles and responsibilities – ditto
- Clear planning and reporting processes – ditto
- Effective investment and appropriate and consistent use of systems and telephony.
3. Focus on Performance
This is the key. To make a team feel like a team, you need to set very clear goals, objectives and vision for the team. What are we here to do? What and how can/will we each contribute to achieving our goals? How are we going to support each other to reach a successful outcome?
Set measurable SMART goals. These will become really important if you don’t see people every day. It’s all about measuring output, not time and attendance. You can track these in a spreadsheet on your team site, and ask people to update it every week by a set time. You will then be able to see at a glance what people have achieved at a glance without lots of emails. Make clear the dependencies/inter dependencies and how each team member’s contribution supports overall achievement.
The quality of the team’s communications must improve also – both in terms of written comms and verbal comms. Written comms must include high standards of grammar and punctuation and sensible document management. For example, when using Powerpoint, make use of standard company templates and high quality graphics where possible. With lengthy documents, insist upon a contents page, an executive summary, focus on the important subject matters and put the detail in appendices.
Managing or working in a team that doesn’t sit together everyday takes more discipline and very clear ways of working. Much of this is what many consider to be “good management” and normal ways of working, but in a “virtual” world, these are even more important.
While these will take additional work at the beginning, this discipline will benefit any team in the long run. Those working this way say their performance, team effectiveness and personal lives have all been enhanced.
Set out, agree and document the expectations, encourage the team to challenge each other in a professional way if the agree standards are not delivered. Be prepared to re-negotiate the “standard” if it is not working for the team and your key stakeholders.
5. Meeting and email etiquette
It is vital that the organisation and the team agree standards, guidelines and etiquette to ensure the team is not left with poor meeting outcomes and drowning in emails.
6. Understanding /acknowledging individual working preferences
These need to be discussed and agreed at an early stage – some specific issues include:
- How to contact in a hurry (how is it best to reach you for urgent and non-urgent issues?)
- Core hours and opportunities to flex those hours
- Links to understanding the cultural/location norm and how this fits with virtual team working.
7. Building a team manifesto
One way of developing high quality, clear team ways of working for the team is to prepare a “team Charter or manifesto” – here is an Example Charter:
- Everyone fills out their Profiles (team leader to produce theirs first as a template for other to follow, making clear that they are setting out the standard/expectation) with every detail and a clear ‘head and shoulder’ photo.
- We all share our diaries and put personal items in as well, so the team is aware of personal commitments as well. (Sensitive items can be marked as private
- We all download and use Skype or Live meeting to have more face-to-face meetings (Dependant on technology available/standard adopted by client/ company etc)
- We commit to an agreed number of days/dates when we will all be together in one physical location being physically in the office a certain number of days and for important meetings
- We identify the best technology for each collaboration
- The fastest collaborative technologies for quick questions (Email, Communicator), the richer technologies Skype, Telepresence, Live-Meeting for the more collaborative or sensitive discussions.
- We run meetings really well – always circulating pre-reads, agenda, inviting the correct people and document actions and circulate minutes. We use the right technology for that meeting, and facilitate it to insure we are inclusive of everyone – offering multiple channels for feedback and offering everyone the opportunity to contribute.
- We celebrate once a quarter as a team – physically or virtually
Action Plan to address these issues to make the Virtual Team more effective
- Build a team charter
- Understand the organisations and teams wishes constraints
- Agree new ways of working
- Agree roles and performance measures
- Document gaps in your current knowledge or team ‘set up’ to address – including meeting and email etiquette
- Agree communications protocols and standards
- Get the team assistant (or PMO) trained on technologies such as Live Meeting or booking video conferencing
- Ensure team has good “homeworking” set up
- Agree a file sharing solution the team will follow – e.g. Sharepoint
- Work with your IT and HR business partners to help address these gaps
These are the main components which need to be considered and it is up to the organisation and / or the team to put in place to ensure the benefits of virtual working are achieved, the team is productive and the objectives are met professionally and timely.
So what can we do about it? One option is carry out a small consulting assignment with four phases – Discovery (status and gaps), Options Solution, Plan to resolve and Implement – and then the Virtual Team will be super effective.