These days people are starting to conduct more and more work remotely.  Advances in technology and communications give business owners and managers the ability to be more flexible. You can now distribute team members geographically on an as-needs basis. They’re no longer limited to being located a reasonable commuting distance from the office.

Businesses can be truly operational 24-7, as team members “switch-on” in different time zones all over the globe. But ensuring the success and viability of virtual teams is a unique challenge that takes some special attention. We will pull back the curtain on virtual teams to bring you three secrets of success.

  1.    Composition is everything

“Start as you mean to go on.”  This somewhat obscure saying, common in the UK. It signifies that you might get things right from the outset, presumably because it will save a lot of time in the long run.

And never a truer word was said. Where the team composition you ultimately end up is how you set up your team in the beginning. Of course, team composition changes over time, team members come and go, and turnover of staff is always an issue.

It’s surprising how much of the culture and operating rules of an organization is set by how it was back in the beginning. Even in cases where no original team members remain with the company.

A good analogy for this is a rock band. They will start with an original line-up and make choices about a band name. Then the rock sub-genre they will be playing in, and about which songs to release. Rock bands want singles with the aim of turning them into hits. Band members will come and go, but in the end, there may be no original band members left.

The chances are that the band that is playing twenty years later has the same band name. They’ll play the same crowd favorites drawn from its original songbook as in the beginning.

You must at least devote some thought to team mix from the outset. You might find yourself performing the management equivalent of trying to turn the Titanic around in the end. So what should you be looking for? And is there anything about virtual teams that makes them different from traditional groups in this regard?

      Study’s Suggest

On this note, Keith Ferrazzi, contributor to the Harvard Business Review, has some advice for you. According to Ferrazzi, team composition boils down to three essential elements: People, Size, and Roles.

In thinking about people, you need to consider personality as being a critical factor, even going so far as to administer tests such as the Myers-Briggs if it will assist you. In general, though, you are looking for adaptable candidates with excellent communication skills, high levels of emotional intelligence, the ability to work independently and capability to bounce back from the inevitable failures and mistakes.

With size, he recommends you keep it small because anything more than ten members starts to get unwieldy regarding communication.  You have to give some thought to roles. Ferrazzi bases his strategy on responsibility for decision making, ranging from strategic decisions right down to decisions at the coal face.

There may be other factors unique to your industry or context that you might like to consider. After all, the composition is hardly a “one-size-fits-all” phenomenon. These might include thinking about time zone (aka geographic location), professional specialty (HR, finance, IT, product development, sales, marketing) and experience, among others.

  1.    Be on the same page

Nothing will sour a virtual team dynamic faster than unmet expectations. This is right from both the management and employee perspective. Once again, it all boils down to establishing the ground rules early on … and communicating these in a clear and transparent manner.

Dan Griffiths and Neil Amato,  writing for the CGMA Magazine, note that virtual teams pose some particular challenges when it comes to setting and communicating expectations.  For one, workers seeking clarification on a task from managers may not only stroll down the hall and check in at the manager’s office door to ensure that they hear instructions correctly.

In the virtual world, you can resolve issues in 5 minutes; this may take place over a series of telephone calls, video calls or emails.

This problem is compounded further when one takes the inherent time zone lag into account. Time zone differences can be significant even intranationally, let alone when considered across the globe. This can mean that the elements of a conversation are spread over many hours rather than compressed into one.

Add to this the fact that language and cultural differences may complicate matters, and that virtual means of communication inevitably constrain the ability to interpret non-verbal cues such as body language. Small wonder then that virtual teams may have to work harder at being a team than a team that is located all in the same space.

There is no known magic cure for alleviating the tyranny of distance. The fact is that awareness will go a long way. If you’re looking for way potential problems, then you should raise them with the team early and often. Have a chance to nip them in the bud before they get even worse.

  1.    Reliability builds trust

Trust is the not-so-secret ingredient behind all successful teams, whether virtual or face to face. However, it’s just human nature that faith tends to be a lot easier to build when you can get to know someone in person on a daily, face-to-face basis, rather than purely online.

So how to create similar levels of trust and team cohesion in virtual environments? According to Erin Meyer, contributor to Forbes, central core is reliability.

In teams, it is critical that team members deliver against expectations, on time, every single time, or can communicate effectively ahead of time should things go awry. This is particularly the case in virtual settings, where there is often less opportunity for “wiggle room” should something go wrong, and where deadlines may be tighter due to time zone differences.

Admittedly, this can be easier said than done, especially when different parts of the work are farmed out to different virtual team members. Managers must provide employees with the appropriate supportive technical infrastructure to make virtual collaboration seamless. Good examples include online group file sharing and collaboration applications like Google Docs and Dropbox. Range from project management programs like Trello and Basecamp and virtual meeting software like Zoom and GoToMeeting.

At the end of the day, great teams are enabled by a great work culture. Make sure yours provides the right foundation for ultimate virtual team success.

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