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In today’s global and distributed business economy, virtual teams are becoming the norm, rather than the exception. Whether you’re managing a geographically dispersed workforce or you’re just getting started with part-time virtual assistants scattered across the globe, learning to manage and communicate with virtual teams is essential to your business growth and success.
First, let’s look at some fundamentals that are important to understand for all teamwork — virtual or in person.
Goals vs. objectives
In order to meet a goal — the desired end result — the team must complete many tasks or objectives. Well-organized teams need to detail both.
At the beginning stages of team formation, state what each person brings to the team and their responsibilities. Stress the importance of interdependence — that in order for the team to succeed, each individual needs to play their role. This can also be a time to establish guidelines for team behavior, norms and any necessary rules.
In leading and managing teams, you want to make sure the roles and purposes for each team member are clear. This is part of being a team leader, delegating responsibility and holding people accountable. Together you outline the tasks or objectives needed to meet the goal and then divide and conquer (or divide, collaborate in smaller groups and conquer, if applicable).
Avoid information hoarding
Don’t hoard information! Some people do this out of fear of losing control or because they don’t want to inundate their team with unnecessary information. But if you want your teams to perform well and be motivated to innovate, don’t hold anything back. Good leaders will act as an information hub, where information can flow freely and transparent communication is encouraged.
One way to do this is to create a shared file site (Google Docs, Basecamp, Dropbox, etc.) where any and all relevant information can be stored. Title or categorize the documents clearly so information can be easily accessed. Communicate this to your team, so if they want resources or additional intel, they know where to find it. It’s better to put it all there at the outset and give your teams access than to keep it to yourself and end up with a less-than-optimal solution because not all available information was used.
Managing team conflict
Whenever you have more than one person involved in any activity, conflict is a natural part of business. It’s only negative if you let it get to that point. Without conflict, the status quo prevails. A significant amount of positive change can result from conflict if it’s managed correctly.
To understand conflict in your teams better, here are a few of the commonly used conflict management strategies. These strategies are often used to avoid or postpone conflict, but the underlying issue will likely resurface if you don’t address the conflict at the root. If you find yourself or a team member using one of these strategies, it’s best to address the elephant in the room and state that while we’re going to postpone the conflict for now in the interest of moving the team toward an objective or goal, it needs to be addressed eventually.
Here the conflict is ignored altogether. People walk away, switch topics or simply ignore the reality. One or both parties will feel inequity at this point, and negative feelings will likely build under the surface. If you see conflict being ignored, as mentioned earlier, note that it’s happening and that you’ll come together and address it at the appropriate time.
This is when one party just gives up, submits, surrenders or agrees to disagree to accommodate the other person and end the conflict. Again, the conflict will not truly be resolved unless the root issues are addressed.
A compromise is when you give up part of what you want, the other party gives up on something they want, and you both move forward. A common misperception about managing conflict is to think that compromise is the go-to solution. But compromise isn’t a win/win. At best it’s a half-win/half-win. Creating win-win solutions involves creative problem solving, a deep understanding of the conflict from both sides, and a willingness to work together toward a solution. This can only come from dialogue, and from really understanding the different personalities, perspectives and thought processes involved.
Now that you have some fundamentals on managing teams down pat, it’s time to focus on specific strategies for communicating and leading virtual teams.
Let’s get virtual
Research shows that virtual teams can actually be more effective than in-person teams in solving quick, simple problems. However, the more complex the problem, the more there is a need for face-to-face interaction.
With virtual teams, you don’t have the option of meeting face-to-face. But you can get as close to that as possible. Advancements in technology have made it considerably easier to coordinate virtual, visual meetings with people across the globe. Your phone is now a videoconferencing device. Applications like Skype, Google Hangouts and — my favorite — Zoom have enabled and facilitated this visual communication.
Prior to starting work with any virtual team, have your first meeting via videoconference. This allows each person on the team to “put a face to a name” and establish a visual rapport with each team member. You can do this as a kickoff meeting to introduce everyone involved, establish responsibilities and celebrate the mutual goal that the team will work toward achieving together.
At the outset, agree on the technologies you’ll use for communication. Set these expectations right off the bat and stick to the plan. What are the channels you agree to monitor? What hours will you make yourself available? Is email the best choice? Is there a better tool for your project? What’s the expected turnaround time? What’s the policy on replying to all vs. replying to only the relevant parties? When should someone just pick up the phone (or get on a video call) and talk instead of having an email chain go back and forth? Establishing these communication norms and rules at the beginning will save time and frustration later in the process.
If you’re managing your whole business as a virtual team, have periodic all-hands or town-hall meetings via video and record them so those who were unable to attend may still glean any necessary information. Summarize your virtual meetings in an email to ensure everyone’s on the same page, responsibilities are listed and you can hold everyone accountable.