How do you manage a virtual team?

4 Jul 2019 By Alexandra Levit

Just because people don’t work together in person doesn’t mean you can’t measure and manage their performance, says Alexandra Levit

I am a member of four virtual teams. My colleagues and I correspond by email, text, Gchat and Slack. We live across the world from each other, mostly in the US but some of us in Australia, India and the UK. I have never met most of these people in person, and I may never do so.

By the end of this decade, organisations will integrate virtual teams into most departmental operations. A virtual team is technically any group of employees in different geographic locations which leverages technology to work together on a project or series of projects. 

However, just because you hire a team residing outside your headquarters and provide its members with equipment and access doesn’t mean it will automatically work as efficiently as it would in a cubicle farm. That is a dangerous assumption: in fact, virtual teams will only be successful if their members meet the following criteria:

  • Team members take responsibility for getting their work done and know when and how to speak up with concerns and suggestions. Because solid results are ensured, they possess a certain degree of flexibility and responsibilities, as well as team rules and protocols, are tightly defined;
  • Team members know how to arrange a meeting in another time zone, how to escalate an issue, and how to get in touch with a colleague about a time-sensitive issue. Feedback is clearly communicated. Assumptions do not exist;
  • Team members have access to the most sophisticated collaboration tools so project work is efficient and seamless. They make use of instant messaging, videoconferencing and social networks to converse in real time;
  • Ideally, team members have met each other in person more than once in both a business and social setting. Although not always feasible, a single in-person gathering makes it much more likely that employees will trust and like each other;
  • Team members are more engaged, more productive, and less stressed when they see their manager in the flesh from time to time. They know what their manager is working on and are well-informed about how team activities impact the organisation’s bottom line;
  • Team members understand how important it is to jump on the phone and talk through conflicts, and to learn about their virtual colleagues as people. Especially with a new team or new hire, the buddy system is helpful in igniting bonds;
  • Agendas are sent out in advance. Team members are punctual because they know the meeting will be short and productive. Discussion time is built in to allow for input and consensus. Sensible ground rules – like reducing ambient noise – keep the group focused and on track.

The most effective virtual team members of all are, surprisingly, strong typists. A 2017 study from the University of Iowa and published in Leadership Quarterly found that to the fast typist go the virtual team leadership spoils. “Individuals who can type faster are able to more quickly communicate their thoughts and drive the direction of a team in a collaborative work setting, whereas individuals with lower abilities lag behind their counterparts,” said Greg Stewart, professor of management and organisations in the UI's Tippie College of Business and co-author of the study.

Whether it’s typing or something else, leaders should actively measure the productivity of their virtual teams. The usual management metrics of organisational KPIs , team targets, individual goals, and defined processes and procedures are equally appropriate for virtual teams. 

However, it’s probably a good idea to take a close look at metrics related to communication specifically, since this can be a downfall of virtual teams. An article in HRM Asia, for instance, recommended that leaders track the percentage of meetings held by videoconference, since the quality of decision-making is reduced when team members multitask during calls. You can also measure time spent on each discussion item during status calls, or number of communication touchpoints from the team leader to each member over the course of a project.

Virtual teams don’t operate the same way as in-office ones, but if you set up and maintain them properly, they can be just as effective.

Alexandra Levit is the author of Humanity Works: Merging Technologies and People for the Workforce of the Future and has been recognised by Thinkers50 as one of the top 30 new leadership thinkers to watch in 2019

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