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How to Manage Virtual Teams

| by Ben Linders Follow 25 Followers on Mar 26, 2015. Estimated reading time: 5 minutes |

When working with virtual teams the basic management tasks or responsibilities remain exactly the same, but checking if the work has been done and if the quality is sufficient tends to be more difficult. Successful collaboration is a shared responsibility of the virtual teams and the customer said Bart Van Loon. He is the owner of Zeropoint, a company that builds remote teams and supports insourcing of offshore teams. It can be the case that the customer who requests the outsourcing needs more attention than the company that is delivering to make it work. Being aware of the specifics of your team will help you managing it to higher efficiency levels.

At the No Pants Festival 2015 Van Loon talked about the role of the virtual team manager. He showed how managers can support collaboration between virtual teams and customers to ensure efficiency.

Team dynamics are highly influenced by the differences in three parameters: time, location and culture of the team members.

  • Time: People work at a different time. Different shifts, across time zones.
  • Location: Being in a different office, people who are outside the office, working from home.
  • Culture: Spoken language, both in terms of natural language, as jargon language. Education level and personal interests for this aspect too.

One of the reasons why offshoring sometimes doesn’t work is because people at the customer site don’t know the people that they work with, do not know their first names, if they are married, have children, etc. You have to spend non-working time together to really learn each other said Van Loon.

Van Loon did a small exercise with the attendants. He divided them up in pairs and asked them to sit back to back. One person got a map with the locations of six companies on it, while the other had a copy of the map which only had the roads on it. The persons had to work together without being able to see each other to determine the positions of the six companies.

Most pairs only found the location of one to three companies, some even none. They found it difficult to describe the position of a company verbally. Some of the pairs marked the spots of all six companies. They did this by communicating intensively. Both persons asked lots of questions. They gave feedback to each other, clarified what they meant with words or sentences and corrected each other where needed.

One of the mistakes that was made was that the two persons had the maps differently oriented (note that the one with the roads only had no top/bottom or North indicator on it). They learned that you first have to align before you can start traveling the map and marking companies. In the end, the participants also got to know that their respective maps weren’t identical in the first place, leading to the realization that wrong assumptions can lead to big communication obstacles.

InfoQ interviewed Van Loon about the role of managers when working with virtual teams, challenges of virtual teams and how to deal with them, dealing with problems that are caused by the company that is working with an offshore team and advice for setting up virtual teams.

InfoQ: What do managers of virtual teams do differently, when compared to co-located teams?

Van Loon: The basic management tasks or responsibilities remain exactly the same. This is a very important understanding.

The differences are only of a practical nature and concentrate most on the part where checking on the team members is involved. One has to create an environment where one can make sure the team is productive even when the manager is not around.

This environment consists out of tools and processes, combined with a general atmosphere wherein the remote team members learn how to check on themselves. This requires better than good communication.

InfoQ: Can you mention some of the challenges that you have had while working with virtual teams? How can you deal with those challenges?

Van Loon: A common trap in which the distant manager falls is one where too much control is applied, which eventually always brings down productivity. Encouraging self-control is imperative and accountability should be put before compliance. Check the results, not the people or activities.

Another common problem is that the remote team member and team manager don’t have any idea about their respective work environments, leading to wrong assumptions and misunderstandings. This results in easily avoidable frustration. Open information dissemination is important here. It also helps to put principles and values before policies.

Finally, one should always keep in mind that spending non-working time together is a must. This can also be done virtually with a simple chat about the weekend, or connecting on Facebook for example. You all want to focus on the customer, and not on the hierarchy.

InfoQ: You mentioned that you see problems in offshoring that mainly have to do with the organization that is outsourcing the work. Since they are the customer it can be challenging to discuss and solve such problems. Can you give some examples of how you can address them?

Van Loon: There is indeed this very pertinacious idea that working remotely is only hard for the virtual manager and that it is the virtual employee who bears the sole responsibility of the success of the collaboration.

The most important thing in making clear that this responsibility is a shared given, is making it clear upfront, before the actual collaboration with remote workers starts.

Zeropoint offers an (obligatory) training to all new customers highlighting the expected qualities of distant team managers and distant team members. During the collaboration, the Zeropoint Operational Offshore Manager has monthly sessions with both sides of the remote teams to ensure processes are followed, tools are used correctly, and communication happens frequently.

A strong argument is that working effectively with remote team members requires you to be more "professional" in your communication. This trickles down through your whole organisation, effectively improving the performance of all team members, also those on-site.

InfoQ: Can you give some advice for people who want to setup a virtual team?

Van Loon: If you want to move forward with it yourself, understand that some things can not or should not be done remotely: hiring people, solving personal conflicts, evaluation and performance reviews, etc. So some travelling is always required.

Other than that:

  • take care of structure;
  • stimulate involvement;
  • monitor the personal dimensions;
  • recognise contributions; and
  • follow processes and use tools correctly (give a good example)

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