Managing Virtual Teams

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Mike Willets, head of leadership development for MaST International explains how setting a few ground rules can help promote trust and lead to effective team working, even when team members have never even met.

In order for any team to work effectively the team members must trust and believe in one another and the project.

This usually comes through getting to know someone, their ability to do their work and help you in doing yours.

However, in the case of virtual team working, while the leader might know what everyone has to offer, other team members haven't usually worked together and lack understanding of each other's areas of expertise.

It is no wonder that they can easily become suspicious of one another.

Take time to explain from the outset why each person has been brought into the team, what their particular expertise is and what relevant experience they have to offer the rest of the team.

In this way you can reassure everyone and establish a new form of trust based on skill.

Rules of Communication
When pulling people together from different locations or organisations, it's important to bear in mind that they may be used to very different channels of communication.

Produce a document summarising:
* Contact details for all team members.
* Who has access to what communication tools and for how often.
* Preferred means of contact for each person.
* Rules for copying others into emails.
* Email subject headings to ensure important team communications don't get lost.
* Any issues that will make it difficult for any individual to adopt new communication methods - such as lack of access to email or different time zones.
* Establish clear reporting channels and set conference calls and monthly meeting times in advance.
* Put in place processes for encouraging the team to share information with one another so that work carried out on one part of the project is known about and able to be reused.

Establish Common Team Values
Unlike working next to someone in a shared physical location, team members will not have an understanding of each other's working environments or other day-to-day pressures so risk judging others by their own standards.

Work out in advance:
* How team members will acknowledge communications sent by one another.
* Agreed timelines for responding to requests.
* The format of shared documents to ensure that material can be easily reused.
* The level of localisation needed by each team member so that standards do not become over prescriptive or limiting.

Create a Team Culture
Even if the team can't physically meet outside of the office, it's important that they still undergo some level of personal bonding.

Take time before starting the formalities of meetings to encourage people to chat on a personal level. Reward the team for hitting targets to foster a sense of pride and belonging.

If possible get the team to meet in person before the start of the project, or issue photographs and biographies of all team members to one another, so that they don't feel like strangers and have a basic sense of familiarity.

Honour Diversity
Although it's important that the team develops its own culture of common working practices and holds itself mutually accountable in the pursuit of shared goals, it is also important that individual's are appreciated for their unique skills.

Encourage the team to bear in mind each other's qualities and needs so that telephone conferences and meetings do not end up being scheduled in such a way that forces some members of the team to work outside of their normal hours.

This is particularly important when the majority of the team are based in the UK, with just one or two virtual colleagues based overseas.

Create Power Maps
Who does each member of the team report to? What other serious commitments are they obligated to fulfil? Who, in a position of authority or influence over them, can you depend on to support the team's work and who might be in a position to detract from this?

The aim is to understand the confines that each member of the team has to operate under. How limited is their resource and access to information and people?

Evaluate Progress
In order to increase individual accountability and a sense of duty to the other team members it is important that a way of tracking the team's output against target is produced and milestones put in place.

Quantify targets with their impact on the business to demonstrate their importance.

Targets must also be used as a means of motivation as well as control.

Reward the team for work delivered on time, or in advance of time, and don't shy away from praising individuals before the team to help create a sense of achievement and motivate others.

* A copy of the MaST report on managing virtual teams can be downloaded free of charge at the MaST website.

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