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Top ten tips on managing virtual teams

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 July, 2013, 9:10pm
UPDATED : Monday, 07 July, 2014, 5:15pm

With more and more companies operating globally, the number of people working in virtual teams (where team members are not located together) is growing. This strategy has many advantages – a cost-effective alternative to long-term expatriation, managers who can have teams with local knowledge based in different locations, close to each market´s customers. However, it also presents its own set of managerial challenges. Compared to expatriation, virtual work is less formalised, and companies frequently lack clear policies on what it means to manage global virtual teams. 

Here are 10 tips for managers to get the most out of their virtual teams:

Tip 1:  Be available

  • It can be isolating to work virtually. Don’t make team members feel you are absent; be in regular contact to talk not just about their day-to-day duties, but beyond that.

Tip 2: Organise regular meetings with both individuals and the whole team

  • Virtually: supported by IT technology, such as video-conferencing, social media or Skype.
  • Face to face: at least once or twice a year. Even if companies are cutting costs, it’s a cost well spent on building relationships.

Tip 3: Encourage informal conversations

  • Humans are social animals, and people tend to assume the worst if they don’t know what others are up to. To help build relationships and trust between members, encourage your team to share their feelings, thoughts, frustrations, hopes and dreams whenever they can – they should feel comfortable talking to each other about their everyday working context. 
  • Example.
    Pete to Maria: “I hate coming in on rainy days. The traffic is awful and I feel I am wasting precious time, plus it stresses me out.”
    Maria thinks: this explains why he is so cold and to the point some days. Not good that he lives in London. Maybe we can be a little more flexible with his working times.

Tip 4: Rotate

  • To further break down barriers between team members, ensure at least one team member spends a short period of time in another location.
  • If it’s impossible to do this physically, a virtual substitute is conference calls scheduled on a regular basis, which can help promote informal conversations.

 Tip 5: Be creative with team bonding

  • Organise different points of contact beyond your team’s tasks or responsibilities.
  • Example.
    After achieving a goal, Martin, the manager, organises a virtual reward ceremony. He sends a small present to all team members and gets everyone to open it at the same time during a video call. It’s one way for Rudolf to say: “We have achieved it together.”

Tip 6: Treat time zone differences fairly

  • With your team spread around the world, you may have a very short window to meet some members or the whole team. Organise regular meetings fairly.
  • Example.
    Patrick lives in New York and Leo in Hong Kong. You can rotate every week the times for meetings to make sure Patrick is not always waking up early for meetings, and also that Leo is not going home too late.

Tip 7: Prioritise developing cultural sensitivity

  • Cultural competences in a virtual environment, where people are based around the world, are even more important than in face to face companies. Consequently, it´s crucial you have an awareness of the cultural differences in your team and promote cultural training for all members.
  • Example.
    Susan sends short and “direct” e-mails to other team members. If they don’t know that’s part of her culture, others may feel uncomfortable and feel she’s treating them poorly.

Tip 8: Invest in socialising pre-existing teams

  • If you inherit a strong pre-existing team (everyone knows each other and works excellently together) - bear in mind that these teams will create even more barriers if they begin working with other, unfamiliar, sub teams as part of a larger, virtual whole. People in strong pre-existing teams are more reluctant to share information as they have a method that “work” and tend to stereotype the other sub teams.
  • Invest in building relationships between the whole team or, recruit someone new in every location and start from scratch.

Tip 9: Look for shared understanding when recruiting

  • If you are creating a new virtual team, recruit people that have worked internationally, as well as those who share previous experiences and similarities. Not in terms of culture, but in terms of education background, shared training activities or having worked on similar projects. The aim is to have some diversity but to make it easy to build trust with some point of contact.

Tip 10: Manage expectations

  • Working in a diverse virtual team is often seen as career enrichment in itself, but the members might be expecting certain global opportunities (e.g. like moving to headquarters at some stage). How do you motivate your team? What happens if the team goes well? You need to deal with this along with HR – so you should know from the beginning what you can offer team members.