Imagine managing a group of people located in seven time zones spread around the globe. When would you schedule a team conference call? Whose dinner would you interrupt? Whom would you ask to get up at the crack of dawn? Would you schedule a call at all? How would you get people to work together who were not physically in the same location — and perhaps had never met?
In today’s global economy, many managers are asking themselves similar questions as they struggle to manage virtual teams. A virtual team is a team whose members are physically separated, including
employees in different locations, individuals who work from home, contractors, vendors, and even customers. Companies rely increasingly on virtual teams because they bring together a diverse group of people with a variety of skills, experience, and knowledge.
But such teams pose challenges. Routine tasks such as scheduling a meeting or reviewing a proposal can be difficult. Information needed during business hours in one location can end up sitting on a colleague’s desktop — after business hours — thousands of miles away. Or a simple phone
conversation or e-mail can unintentionally cause personal friction if cultural norms are ignored. The responsibilities of a virtual team leader are similar to those of a leader who manages a team in a single location — but the chances of things going awry are significantly greater. To get the most out of your virtual team, follow four steps:
Clearly define the team’s goals
Establish communication guidelines
Document expectations about processes, and
Use coaching to improve performance
To explore each step in practice, let’s consider the example of Lisa, the manager of a global design team. Lisa works for a large home appliance manufacturer in the United States. She has assembled a global team to design a new line of energy-efficient products. Her team includes designers, marketers, and finance managers spread across North America, Europe, and Asia. Because of budget constraints, Lisa isn’t able to hold a face-to-face project launch. Instead, she conducts the kick-off meeting by videoconference.
During this initial meeting Lisa addresses the first step of virtual team management: clearly defining
the team’s goals. She begins by reviewing the team’s vision: developing products that are
environmentally friendly and appeal to a global market. The goal is to design appliances that are small, energy-efficient, and affordable.
Lisa outlines a high-level schedule for every project phase. She tells the group that exceptional teamwork will be critical to meeting this aggressive schedule. And she wants to spend the remainder of the meeting focusing on establishing communication guidelines — the second step of virtual
She leads the group in determining who will receive what types of communications and when. For example, she suggests that the entire team participate in a weekly conference call to address any issues. She also suggests they have a weekly status e-mail that lists decisions made and milestones completed. They determine how frequently people will be expected to check e-mail and voicemail, and how
promptly they will be expected to respond. They end the meeting by establishing a process for reviewing documents and maintaining version control.
The following day, Lisa refers to her meeting notes for the third step of managing a virtual team:
documenting expectations about processes. She e-mails a meeting summary to all participants. Then
she sets the day and time of the weekly conference call and creates a format for the status updates. Next she creates a document that lists the agreed-upon communication guidelines, and drafts a separate work plan that lists specific deliverables with the team member accountable for each. Lisa posts the work plan and standards documents on the team’s intranet site.
Feeling confident that she has laid a solid foundation for success, Lisa spends the next several weeks observing her new team in action. She regularly checks in with individuals by e-mail, and participates in the weekly conference calls. Things appear to be progressing smoothly.
However, as the weeks pass, Lisa notices a potential problem. Sergio, an Italian designer, regularly joins the weekly conference calls late. At first, the team waited for Sergio before tackling important issues. But recently, the team has started its discussions without him. Lisa is concerned that the team may be missing valuable design input from Sergio — and that Sergio is missing nuanced discussions
not captured in the meeting notes and status reports.
Lisa decides she should address the issue by implementing the fourth step of managing a virtual team:
using coaching to improve performance. Lisa calls Sergio to see why he’s not able to join
conference calls on time. He explains that the calls are scheduled at a time when his office is actually closed and he goes home to have lunch with his family. He tells Lisa that he makes an effort to get back in time for the calls, but is sometimes late because he takes his young children back to school and can’t leave until school is back in session.
After the call, Lisa realizes that this is not a coaching issue. Rather, it’s her own mistake! She hadn’t considered how work customs might vary in different countries — and be different from the standards
she is used to and has implemented.
Lisa wonders what to do next and reads an article on managing virtual teams. She discovers that she should have performed a “culture check” during her launch meeting to address any unique issues that might arise because of the global nature of her team. Also, rather than imposing standards, she should have involved the group more in creating mutually acceptable guidelines about project management, hours of operation, and other procedural details.
Armed with this knowledge, Lisa decides to rectify these mistakes during the next conference call. She asks the group about differing working conditions, such as hours employees are usually at work, holiday schedules, and what is considered to be overtime in their offices. Then she asks team members to express any special considerations they might have as they further refine team standards. Once agreed upon, she updates the standards on the team site.
Over the course of the project, Lisa does encounter situations in which she needs to use coaching to improve performance. For example, one team member has trouble adapting to working virtually with others, and another member has never developed a budget report before.
She also faces additional logistical challenges, but overcoming such challenges proves to be well worth the effort. Ultimately, the people on Lisa’s team draw on their different talents and cultural perspectives to design a successful product line — that appeals to a global market.
By following the four steps of virtual team management, you, too, can help your virtual team, although located apart, work well together — and capitalize on their diverse skills and viewpoints for
the benefit of your organization.