A virtual team is one where not all the team members are in the same place.  This could be across several buildings in the same town, or across several timezones.  The most extreme examples would be a ‘follow the sun’ type team, with team members in Australia, the US and Europe/Middle East/Africa.  In this team example, you will find it difficult to get all the team members together as someone will be going to bed just as someone else is getting into the office!  However, you can successfully manage virtual teams.  Here are some tips.

1.   Have a project vision

Discuss the project vision – that is, the goal, objectives, end state – with the team at the beginning of the project.  This is so that everyone understands what it is that they are aiming to achieve, and can see how their part in the project contributes to the overall end game.  This is a really key point: it is a huge benefit to a team to have a common goal, and having everyone pull in the same direction should not be underestimated as a great way to keep the project on track.  Every time someone new joins the team, or if the project vision changes for any reason, have the discussion again to be sure that you are all still aligned.  This is as true for a collacted team as for a virtual team.

2.   Recognise individual differences

Not everyone communicates in the same way.  And in a virtual team, you can guarantee that most of your communication will be in writing – email, fax, documents, IM and so on.  Understand that people are different. Who is not so good in the mornings?  Who doesn’t have English as their first language?  Also take these points into consideration on conference calls, where you can’t see the body language of your colleagues.  As the project manager, make sure that on a call you encourage participation from everyone.

3.   Think about your motivational strategies

How are you going to keep this team together and on track?  People partake in projects for various reasons, most commonly because they think it will be good for their career, or because they didn’t have a choice.  Regardless, you need to consider how you are going to ensure that everyone gets the motivation they require to keep plodding on.  Consider especially those people who find it hard to work in a virtual environment – in Myers-Briggs Type Indicator terms, these people probably have type ‘E’ in their profiles.  If you gain your motivation and energy from being around others, a virtual environment is going to rob you of that contact with your team, so you should work out how else to bring that feeling into your day job to ensure your motivation doesn’t flag.  Talk to your team about how they are motivated – together and individually – to establish how best you can make the virtual environment work for them.

4.   Communicate effectively

This sounds obvious, doesn’t it?  It should do.  Communication across a virtual team is different to in a collacted team.  You can’t just all up and go out for lunch, or sit in a meeting room for two hours thrashing out the finer points of your project requirements document.  Think about the different communication tools that you use, and work out how best to adopt new ones to manage your non-collacted team.  And review constantly:  try something and if it doesn’t work, change it.  For example, pick the best time for your weekly project progress calls, but if it doesn’t seem like the best time for everyone after a couple of weeks, open it up to the team and ask them to suggest a better arrangement. Then act on it!

Tomorrow I will look at three more tips for managing virtual teams successfully.