Crash Course in... Managing a virtual team

The days when your people worked alongside the same colleagues all week are history: most spend much of their time collaborating with those in other cities or countries. But it's not always a successful arrangement. Is there a better way to organise these virtual teams?

by Alexander Garrett
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Say hello. 'The most successful virtual teams spend time during their formation period face-to-face, getting to know each other,' says Neil Middleton of change management specialists Contour Consulting. It's worth investing in an initial face-to-face meeting, possibly with a facilitator, to foster a social relationship between members and to establish how you'll work together and communicate, he advises.

Build trust. Trust is the cement that holds a virtual team together: you can depend on other team members and feel comfortable in opening up to them. 'Research has found that virtual teams that contained high trust spent half of their early communications in the first weeks of the team's existence on topics such as their families, hobbies and weekend social activities,' adds Middleton.

Recruit with care. 'Our research has shown that people who can communicate in the right way at the right time are more likely to be successful in virtual teams,' says Stuart Duff, of business psychologists Pearn Kandola. 'In a manager, having the understanding and awareness of other people's communications preferences is vital.'

Don't rely on e-mail. The default communication channel for virtual teams has its shortcomings, says Duff. 'The written word is easily misinterpreted. Supplement its use with other forms of communication and that misunderstanding needn't fester.'

Encourage dissent. A healthy organisation needs people to challenge its leaders and each other, but without face-to-face meetings, people become reluctant to speak out. 'Dissent is one of the greatest assets you can have in a virtual team, because it shows that people have their own opinion and are willing to voice it,' says workplace effectiveness consultant John Blackwell.

Use technology thoughtfully. Sophisticated tools such as web-chat and collaborative applications like Lotus Notes let people interact around the same documents. But used badly, they can be a disaster. Says Blackwell: 'You need to train people to use the technology rather than simply foisting it on them.'

Measure outcomes. Performance management is challenging in dispersed teams. 'You are often giving people a huge degree of spatial and temporal autonomy when you set up a virtual team,' says Blackwell. 'So it's best to focus on the outcomes, whether or not they do that through working 9-to-5.' Find a personal way to appraise performance, rather than giving feedback via e-mail. And hold regular chats with team members.

Do say: 'By proactively creating virtual teams we can go where the talent is, extend our reach and work more efficiently.'

Don't say: 'We call them a virtual team because they're not quite the real thing.'

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