People & Human Resources

Virtual teams and virtual pairs: Making them work well

Engel Schmidl /

Many of us now work in virtual teams. This simply means working with people with whom you mainly or only communicate in an online fashion.

Team members are either located elsewhere in the world or perhaps are contractors working form home or another office, or sales and service people on the road. Some people find this difficult, others thrive with virtual team relationships.

Managing a virtual team takes a different set of skills as there are new challenges and benefits that arise.

Challenges

When managing a virtual team you quickly realise that there is a lot of information and informal communication that you rely on to get a sense of everyone working well.

Empowerment and trust

Trust is an important element of virtual teams. A lot of time will be lost if team members aren’t given the authority and responsibility to make decisions. It takes a high level of skill to determine the optimal level of responsibility for virtual team members, but also in communicating where this responsibility lies.

It is easy for team members to become complacent in a virtual working environment. They may be removed from the finished product of the work they are contributing to, and communicate only electronically means that there can be a desensitisation to the needs of others within the team. With this in mind it should be a priority to frequently engage through media other than email. Social media tools exist that can support videoconferences or instant-message chat services that allow for quick-exchange conversations in a more relaxed tone.

Casual conversations and regular communication

Being able to casually chat face to face or ask someone about what they are currently working on becomes a lot more difficult. So the best way for each pair to work must be established.

  • Discuss – do we enjoy texts? Facetime? Skype? Email? Voicemail? Phone calls? Other communication apps? Combination? Twitter, Facebook updates? Personal vs professional? Shared desktop apps?
  • Know what proportion a person is on smart/iphone vs tablet/ipad/computer. Someone on the road may not appreciate lots of large file attachments, or on the contrary, some may insist on getting everything whilst travelling to keep up to date. When? Specific times? How often – during a job, at each issue, wait till end of a period?
  • Style – do we need to have hi/dear/names – can we abbreviate without appearing unprofessional
  • Emails– subject line naming, cc/bcc –what, when, why?
  • Attachments and files – saving files and documents – agree on protocol especially when docs are shared, amended regularly, and what about attachments – personal pics for mini updates? Size of things to be sent? Shared icloud?
  • How often do we or can we meet face to face? Do we arrange regular videoconferencing sessions?
  • Should we include personal sentences – how is the sick parent, reference to sport, children – all these things we might normally cover day-to-day may become spotlighted in the virtual world

Asking these kinds of questions and agreeing what works best will streamline and enhance you communication and working relationship.

Completion and standard of work

You can no longer expect work to be done and completed within the hours of 9am and 5pm. A difference of time zones means that a simple question can take several hours for a response, which may delay something for an entire day.

In some cases it may be harder to manage consistency and standards of someone working remotely. This is where communication because more important than ever. A manager needs to be explicit and clear of what is expected of the team. Confusion can cost a lot in terms of time and money when dealing with virtual teams. Instructions need to be detailed and thorough.

There are great opportunities with a virtual team that need to continually be explored. A virtual team is still a team, and the manager needs to engender a sense of shared achievement and responsibility. It is easy to forget there are people at the other end of the emails with feelings, motivations, drives, strengths and weaknesses.

Eve Ash has produced a wide range of resources and books and also a range of podcasts – check out ASK EVE!

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