Much like their real-world counterparts, virtual teams require sound infrastructure and clear communication to achieve success.
As technology has evolved, so has the workplace—giving rise to numerous questions and concerns about the management of telecommuters. However, by following some basic guidelines, companies can form highly successful virtual teams.
Online Collaboration Platforms
Working and collaborating with people in disparate locations requires tools to support work across space and time boundaries. Online collaboration tools like Asana and Basecamp can help teams share information and organize tasks and data. In some businesses, there might be a dedicated corporate intranet; others leverage Sharepoint or Lotus Notes. In addition, with more professionals collaborating across organizations, Google is driving adoption of its own strong online collaboration tools.
Regardless of the specific tool of collaboration, what’s most important is that the team can access and distribute important information about the project in a single virtual location. This data can take the form of calendars, deadlines, assignments and research, in addition to processing and retaining individual team members’ notes, processes and deliverables.
Without any face-to-face interaction, virtual coworkers must find another way to get acquainted. Virtual icebreakers can take the form of a general bio of each team member that others can ingest and consider, while a corporate intranet may already have employee pages featuring the relevant details of each team member.
A virtual icebreaker gives each team member an opportunity to share their individual interests, background and experiences. Presenting weekly questions, both on and off-topic, sharing related tidbits, and encouraging team members to not only answer, but comment on one another’s thoughts. Some tools present discussion feeds to keep conversations going in real time. Sharing these details in a “team-only” area helps to deepen the team’s connection and relations with one another.
The Team Charter
When working with a virtual team, trust begins with a team charter. Think of a charter as the emergence of rules and the beginning of a culture. It starts with pertinent details, such as who is on the team, and their contact information. Often, team members will list dedicated windows of time during which they will focus on the undertaking at hand. This allows others to coordinate and share time on the effort, or be available via Skype or instant message.
Depending on the nature of the work, a team charter can then move on to rules and guidelines for the initiative, as well as deliverables. An online form can be used to share general expectations for all members of the team. Team members can share strategies for how they, as individuals, will maintain a strong level of time management and involvement, how they might actively participate with the rest of the team, and how they will handle problems if they arise. Requesting that team members share their views on what fair contributions and successful collaborations should look like in the early stages can enhance the chances for long-range success. When the deliverables are critical, the charter can include an explanation of how efforts will be redirected in the event of a team member faltering in his or her duties.
Once the team charter is completed, the documentation in its final form should be shared directly with each team member and posted in the collaborative space for reference.
Skills, Leadership & Project Infrastructure
When beginning a new team, especially a virtual one, a skills inventory is a critical step. This process involves simply listing the strengths and skills of each member and sharing it with the rest of the team. This allows everyone to see what their fellow team members bring to the table and determine what skillsets may be missing. When there is a disparity in skillsets, members can team up to overcome the challenge, or seek assistance outside of the team.
What is a team without a leader? It’s still a team. Some teams choose a leader immediately when, by way of skill or experience, that leader is obvious. Some virtual teams divvy up the leadership to the subject matter expert on the deliverables of specific projects. Others simply organize the initiative through their own dynamics, preferring to flow, adapt and build the deliverable step by step, working in tandem.
What is a team without a challenge? Projects and deliverables are the products of great teams, and each must first be organized and broken down into stages, or milestones. The skills inventory becomes greatly valuable at this point. Thus, a web development project would be assigned to the web developer, keeping the project aligned through longtime expertise.
Managing large projects becomes easier by breaking down deliverables among those who share specific expertise. One person does not need to carry the load. For instance, when there is a writing project, it can be divvied up among the three writers. Each writer can craft one fully-considered thought, rather than having each writer bogged down researching multiple breakout topics.
Now… The Work
It is at this stage that team members discuss the project’s content. They have fulfilled their data gathering and investigations, and returned to the group with fresh information and insights. Using the roles assigned to each member, the group will gather online (using a Google Hangout, Adobe Connect or other online collaborative platform) to share and discuss their research and findings. Discussions on insights from the gathered data often generate new questions to fuel content. Throughout the discussion, the team makes decisions on what information to focus their individual actions on… and then the team is off to work.
This stage becomes a race to the finish, making sure all aspects of the deliverable are completed and the content is clear, concise and consistent. As deadlines approach, keeping everyone informed as to progress and time availability helps drive productivity to the end.
After all is said and done, take a little time to revel in your success. Every team, especially a virtual one, needs moments of celebration. Those “We did it!” moments cannot be overlooked, as they often provide the only feeling of achievement a virtual worker gets to experience. iBi
Amy Lambert is director of learning at OneFire.