Managing a virtual team can be challenging. Unlike managing a face to face team, you can’t just pop over to your team member’s desk when you want to chat with them or see how they are going. You need to manage in a different way. So, it is alarming to note that a recent Australian study found that 70% of organisations don’t train their managers to manage virtually (AHRI, 2014).
To assist you with the challenge of managing your virtual team, here are the 7 top tips for managing virtual teams.
1. Create clearly defined goals
All teams need clear goals to operate effectively. In virtual teams, where team members are often operating in isolation, goals become even more important for the team as a whole and for individual team members.
You need shared ownership and understanding of your team goal. So, it’s best to involve all your team members in the goal setting process. This can be accomplished face to face or just as easily via videoconference.
Once you have your team goals set, publish them in a place and format that everyone can access from their own desktop. This will help to keep everyone on track when working remotely.
2. Agree on ground rules and communication protocols
Team values, ground rules and protocols are important elements in building strong team culture and communication patterns. Many teams and organisations develop values, which contain a set of important words such as teamwork or customer service. While these are important words, each team member would have a different interpretation of what these values mean and what they look like in terms of behaviour. In a virtual team, this misinterpretation is amplified with distance and cultural differences.
So, it is important for your team to work past single word values, to identify ground rules which define the behaviour that you expect of each other.
Breakdowns in communication are very common in virtual teams and an over-reliance on email can be fraught with danger. So, it is also important to build some communication protocols into your ground rules.
Once developed, ask every team member to commit to the ground rules. Then make sure everybody has a copy at their workstation, refer to them regularly (such as at the beginning of virtual team meetings) and review and update them as new members join the team.
3. Face to face – if possible
If at all possible, bring the team together early in its lifecycle. High performing virtual teams use this time to develop shared goals and ground rules and build in some social interaction, which significantly speeds up the process of building relationships and trust across the team.
4. Meet virtually – often
Whether or not you can meet face to face, make sure you meet virtually, often. While teleconferences are very useful for sharing information and updating team members on team progress, try to have video based virtual meetings as often as possible to enhance relationship building.
If you have team members in different time zones, think about how you share the late night and early morning meeting times. Ask team members when they would prefer to meet and rotate your meeting times so that you all share those inconvenient times.
Emphasise the importance of attending the virtual team meetings. To ensure team members want to attend, also think about how you manage your meetings. These best virtual team meetings are:
- Structured, with an agenda and chair
- Focused on the agenda items, and
- Engaging, with the chair addressing people by name and seeking input from all team members.
Some form of ice breaker, check-in or short team building activity at the beginning of each virtual team meeting will accelerate the trust building process. It is also a nice touch to have a team lunch or morning tea in your virtual team meetings from time to time.
5. Manage by outcomes
Because you can’t see what team members are doing on a day to day basis, you need to manage them in a different way. Managing by outcomes is the ideal way to manage remote workers. This is a joint process, involving team leader and team member and is illustrated by the diagram below:
6. Build one on one relationships
Spend some time each week interacting individually with each of your team members, via instant messaging, telephone or videoconference. Make sure you choose the tool that you both prefer and chat often.
Focus on those team members who are most remote. These are the people who can most easily fall off our radar and feel left out of the team, so we need to pay particular attention to them.
7. Replicate water cooler conversations
In face to face teams, relationships, trust and creativity are developed through the informal, incidental conversations at the water cooler, in the hallway or in the kitchen. In virtual teams, we don’t have these opportunities, so we need to replicate them. Here are four ideas for replicating water cooler conversations:
Use instant messaging for the informal, incidental conversations.
Have virtual coffee meetings. Agree on a time to each head down to your local coffee shop, order your coffee and sit down for a chat – via phone. It may feed a little strange at first, but once you settle in, the informal setting is great for creating rapport and trust.
Have purely social telephone conversations – pick up the phone now and then, just to ask team members how their holiday was, how their week is going or what they have planned for the weekend.
Use social media – connect to each other via your preferred social media forum.
Managing a virtual team is different to managing face to face. The above tips will assist you to provide direction, create a sense of team, build trust and manage individual team members more effectively.
Korrine Jones our Virtual Teams specialist is the author of this article. To book your managing virtual teams training course simply go to: