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What is the best way to manage a team that is virtual?

I now have several people on my team and most people are working virtually. Two of us are in the same city, but the rest are in different time zones. I would like to start having weekly staff meetings, but I am not sure how well that will work. What has been other people's experiences with managing such a diverse team?

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12

Hi Thomas,

I work a lot with leaders building high performing teams, both in the same office and virtually.

The core components of what someone needs from their leader are the same, the difference with virtual teams is how you do them, and a few other nuances. There's lots of good suggestions here about tools. Here is a link to a blog I wrote about top tips for leading a virtual team.
http://ethree.ca/top-tips-virtual-teams/

In terms of your staff meetings, that can absolutely be done and done well, but take care to think about the time zones and find a time that works for everyone (or rotate it). Also, if you can, find methods to host the meeting that are as close to face to face as possible (like Skype or vid conferencing). If you have to do it all by phone , you'll need to spend a bit more time on team meeting etiquette with everyone and have a clear agenda. Even if you only do it over the phone, I'd suggest using an interactive whiteboard function in a webex format and capturing key notes so that people can clearly a) follow the thread of the conversation and b) know that they are heard.

If you haven't done any contracting with the team, I would suggest doing that - you need to promote a sense of team amongst the team members so that they are as connected with each other as they are with you, and because they aren't altogether in the same place, you'll need to help them with that.

If you have any specific questions, feel free to get in touch.
Thanks
Jess

9

Hi Thomas,

Using the right (mostly free) tools can give you the right power to manage your team without having to be present in all the timezones or spending too much time on catching up every day. It depends a lot on how your business operates, but still there are some tools you can have a look at like Jira, BaseCamp, and Trello where you can manage and track your tasks, milestones and time depending on the methodology you follow to manage your projects. You can integrate them with other systems as well to automate tasks and notifications. I recommend Zapier in this, as you can setup them yourself (in most of the cases) and eventually at a very low cost.

However organizing at least one meeting per week is still crucial so you make sure things are on track, and moreover you make people feel as part of the company, its culture and its goals rather than just remotely working for their paycheck.

I hope this helps! Should you need any more advice, do not hesitate to get in touch.

Wish you all the best!

5

The tool suggestions are good. Have both video and chat available at the same time - it makes it seem more like an in person meeting if you can have side conversations. The problem is the time zones - it is very awkward when you have people half a world away. Consider rotating the inconvenience around the month. Everyone feels annoyed. Don't make anyone get up in the middle of the night, but 6am and 6pm will need to be considered. When I lived in California I had to work with people in England and India. Talk with them about who has to have the greatest inconvenience. Someone with a new baby at home may be working on warped hours anyway, for example. Be totally flexible (yourself) on the hours people work most of the time, but insist that the meetings are a key part of the job. People spread across the US seem like a minor problem to me now.

5

I have been involved in this kind of working environment for many years.

In my view it isn't complicated. You have to communicate effectively. That means listening to one another as well as passing on knowledge and instructions.

Skype, FaceTime, telephone conferences are great ways to keep in touch. I like the tools where you can see the other person / people because it helps in picking up the non verbal parts of effectively communicating. Other have recommended tools for sharing documents.

However it really isn't about the electronics. What makes teams work is a combination of personal connections and being united around a common purpose and feeling valued for your contribution to the team. Everything you do is to build and sustain that.

I also recommend creating formal opportunities to meet collectively at least twice a year. Depending on what your business is this can often be done productively and the cost will almost certainly get repaid in increased cohesion and productivity.

Happy to chat for more if you like.

5

All of the tool suggestions are great. I have been in an unsuccessful team where I worked from home in a city with no other coworkers. It shouldn't be a surprise that the issue that doomed the team was a communication. We had access to all of the free tools, but people didn't want to learn how to use them. They thought it was more work to connect with me than if I was in the office.

So I think that is the key. Keep communication up just like you were in the same building. Now that I run my own place all but one of my clients is in a different city. In terms of how we interact there is no real change. Time of day may be different for each of us, but the emails are the same, the meetings are the same.

5

1. Fix up a time (some may need to join at night or early morning).
2.If too many people, you need to group people in different regions and select 1-2 Representatives in each region to join the meeting only. Than get the representatives to conduct their meeting within their region.
3. If one timing cannot be done, you need to split your meeting in 2 timings to two group of people.
4. To have good meeting, you need to setup meeting policies + meeting template + procedures + expectation.
5. Tools to use - many very good suggestions here, you should look at them.

5

In my experience, it is very important to make proper decision on whether to bring everybody to such meeting or to arrange couple of groups. Or, even, to manage things on personal communication level. To me, it is crucial to have all the information that will be brought to the round table of high importance for every participant. Otherwise, you will have a group of "boring sitters". Then, if you decide that it is absolutely imperative to bring all your people to the meeting and you are dealing with PST vs EST (3 hours difference) the best time (again, to me) to run such meeting would be around 1:10 pm PST (California) - this will be equal to 4:10 pm EST (Florida). That's my five cents. Thanks, Igor.

4

For starter, diversity is not an issue since it is subjective often to the product managers standpoint however having a virtual team w/ different and diverse behavior or custom you will basically have the following barriers as a result of such diversity.

1. Complex and chaotic operational structure;
2. Deliverable monitoring & implementation; and
3. Miscommunication.

First barrier, you need to simplify and automate how your team operates like pre-tasks scheduling, designate tasks with respect to a team member's skill set, provide a time frame per tasks. Then create an ecosystem for these tasks such as ticketing or job order / request system between members or teams.

Second, be adept to the operation and its inherent probabilities, prepare a weekly sprint for it and make sure that everything in it are time bounded. The rest is you hope for the best and plan for the worst.

Lastly, you need to make sure on top of everything of the teams communication processes let alone communicating guideline instructions. Initiate a difficult exercise. One of example would be to get your team to play a multiplayer first person shotting game like Counter-Strike. You will understand how valuable communication is after your team of 5 engages 30 enemy players and manages to win. From thereon everything else that makes an effective team will fall into place.

In addition, apply a team management methodology rather than just application tool(s). I suggest you make an agile and PRINCE2 approach in your organizational or operational structure of your team. Goodluck!

4

A virtual Team needs structure. Do you know how they like to communicate? What time zones are they in? Setting expectations before hiring is always an advantage, as is hiring the right team members for the right projects. If you don't have a communication plan set up, then I would start there. Determine how they like to communicate - written, audio or visual - and then pick the tools that can optimize that structure. Also look for ways that the team can work together and share information or files. Sometimes this is done through a project management system, and sometimes through weekly calls that have a team building purpose - such as a brainstorming session, or virtual "Egg Hunt" - Keeping the team engaged and looking for ways to improve the process is critical.

4

Having managed virtual teams that were coast-to-coast, as well as global (US & India), the reality I discovered is that - regardless of age and regardless of management level - virtual work can be for anyone, but, is not for everyone. As a result, one must use care when assembling a virtual team, as well as adjusting a new or existing team over time. Further, the team leader must be honest with their own management style meaning that if one micromanages/ if one hovers/ if one expects instant-access to subordinates/ if one is inclined to not trust ...then managing a virtual team is not the best situation for that manager.

From my experience, those best suited for virtual work are those who are comfortable delegating (and being delegated) responsibility, then trust in both directions that ownership is taken, that expectations set will be managed to, and that support is available as needed. Related to this, an effective virtual team will have (or develop) a culture where virtual workers are comfortable reaching back to leadership for timely support on issues/challenges encountered.

The above is a 80,000 foot view that gets more complex depending on the industry, the role virtual workers have (i.e.: outward facing company ambassadors vs. inward facing administrative support, etc.), whether the product/services/functions supported remotely are mature with defined processes or pioneering, typical interval/sales cycle length [if sales team] etc. That said, a team of responsible, trusting members can be virtual on innovative offerings where business/economic/ technical models are being pioneered.

These observations have parallels to the traditional work environment. Some people are hard wired to need face-to-face interaction with colleagues ...whether for camaraderie, insecurity, office politics, etc. Those type of people will typically not be comfortable in virtual working relationships - whether they are heading a virtual team or in a virtual team.

Once the responsible, trusted people are in place, there are countless effective tools for communicating/tracking/etc. I'd go so far as to say that while touching base weekly is fine (team call or one-on-one), effective virtual teams can be on their own for longer periods of time (depending on variables above like sales cycle length) . The effective virtual team will have a culture that is comfortable with as-needed spikes in communications - be it top-down or bottom-up ...depending on challenges of the day faced by virtual workers and/or the team leader.

(FYI - my experiences with virtual teams are with managing sales/business development for emerging eCommerce initiatives. Over the years my virtual teams have ranged in size from 3-4 to ~2 dozen. I have also been a virtual worker with my leadership in other parts of the country, as well as on the opposite side of the planet.)

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