Four tips for starting a virtual team

Sep 12 2011 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

For many managers, that first big promotion or project assignment creates all sorts of drama: creating new working relationships, taking on unfamiliar tasks and doing less of the actual work, and more of the "watching-while-others-do".

This is hard enough when everyone you are working with is in the same place. But when you are scattered all over the planet and can't meet eye to eye, it can be even more stressful.

Fortunately, one of the smartest people in Silicon Valley has some advice. Pam Fox Rollin works with some great companies, and is the author of the book, 42 Rules For Your New Leadership Role- The Manual They Didn't Hand You When You Made VP, Director or Manager"

In a recent interview on the Cranky Middle Manager Show, she talked a lot about getting your team up to speed, and I recently asked her for some of the things a new leader of a remote team should do right away to get started on the right foot.

"Starting a new leadership role is tough", she says, "even when you can gather team members for a huddle any time you wish. When your team spans 10 time zones, you might wonder how the heck you can get your team on the same page". Here are four tips to make sure that your management is as effective virtually as face-to-face.

1. Figure out your team's current communication channels and fine tune where necessary.

Find out how the team is currently communicating with its virtual members – just don't assume these methods are working well. Many people working remotely rely heavily on programs like Skype and IM (Instant Messaging). These may be the systems you inherit, but it's up to you to determine if they are, in fact, working well.

Make time to check in with each member individually. You may find that factors such as location or time zone make the current methods of communication inconvenient or frustrating. Speak with each team member one-on-one to find out what works for them, what doesn't and why. This personal feedback will allow you to understand individual and team communication needs, so you can encourage the team to consider other possibilities.

2. Aim for some face time, especially at the beginning.

We all know that the speed with which we can reach for our iPhones cannot make up for the thoroughness and nuances of real, in-person communication. If you want to get the most out of your team, you need to know them better than any smart phone or computer monitor will allow.

Connect with them each individually, as people. This means at least one face-to-face visit with every team member, even those who work remotely. If that's not possible, turn on the video Skype or other cheap, easy webcam tool (assuming IT has given you dispensation).

Granted, video isn't always appropriate (no one needs to see you in your pj's), but if you make eye contact with your remote players at least weekly, you'll find a reduction in the miscommunication that often occurs via IM, text and email. The personal contact will also help remote members feel more involved and more accountable for their contributions to the team.

3. Clearly communicate goals and decisions and the reasons behind them.

Regardless of location, everyone on your team should be working toward common goals, with shared understanding of how those goals contribute to the business. Clarity with remote team members is especially critical, since their distance creates more opportunity for them to inadvertently stray from the plan. And, if they don't understand the reasoning behind the plan, they may fail to recognize when exceptions and course-corrections need to be made.

Become a master at closing meetings well… summarizing decisions, ensuring tasks have owners, and confirming readiness to act.

4. Have an excellent project management system…and USE IT!

You may trust that your new team members are working hard, but when they're working virtually, you can't just stick your head into their office every so often and ask how it's going. You must keep track of who's doing what. Whether you use fancy project management software or a Google Docs tracking list, make sure every task is noted and who is responsible for it, when it's due, and any pertinent notes or outstanding questions.

Tracking projects daily lets you know what each team member is doing, keeps them accountable, prevents important details from falling through the cracks, and sets you up to deliver results on time, no matter how distributed your team members. By making the system a shared space, rather than delegating through emails to individuals, you put the projects at the center of the team's focus. This keeps you from becoming the soon-exhausted hub of every project and helps your team collaborate.

This is great advice for any project manager or leader with remote reports. You can hear the full interview with Pam Fox Rollin on the Cranky Middle Manager Show here.

There is still room in our September workshops for Leading Effective Virtual Meetings, How to Create and Manage Remote Teams and Web Presentation Basics.

Let's hear from you. What works in your world? What teams and techniques have you seen work effectively?

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.