A virtual team is a group of individuals who work across time, space and organizational boundaries with links strengthened by webs of communication technology.1 This type of team is becoming more and more popular due to the fact that with laptops, smartphones and internet connections, people can work from virtually anywhere. There are many benefits for organizations, including access to global talent and lower expenses for wages and office space.
In a recent survey, nearly 80% of highly qualified workers reported working always or frequently in virtual teams. However, most of these teams are not productive and successful and fail to meet their goals. On the other hand, the good news is that well-managed virtual teams are productive and successful, sometimes even more successful than the shared office space teams.
Having that in mind, let's discuss the best tips and practices that can be used to increase the productivity of virtual teams.
Communication is one of the most important things in virtual teams. It is usually less effective that the communication in traditional teams. Virtual teams face many difficulties in communication, such as time delays, common reference frames, differences of interpretation, and assurance of participation for remote team members.2 Nonverbal communication is also missing in virtual teams, and even more problems could potentially arise when some team members are co-located while others are in a different geographic location.
Communication needs to consider socio-emotional processes and challenges that arise in virtual teams due to its virtual nature. These processes are relationship building, cohesion (a sense of unity in a team) and trust.
1. Hold an initial face-to-face meeting
If possible, the first team meeting should be face-to-face. As eye contact and body language help to develop interpersonal connections, face-to-face meetings can create a high level of trust between the team members. If live meeting is not possible, then use video chat instead.
2. Choose the right communication technology for each issue
Depending on the issue, different communication technologies should be used. Research has found that face-to-face meetings or phone calls are suitable for ambiguous tasks, managing conflicts, managing external resources, brainstorming and strategic talks. Electronic communication is more suitable for more structured tasks such as routine analysis, examining design tradeoffs and monitoring project status.
3. Have a chat room open constantly
Timedoctor utilizes this tip in practice, where each team has their own chat room which is open at all times. The chat room should imitate chat between coworkers in office space, meaning that it should be used for both work-related and non-work-related stuff. However, make sure that these chat rooms are not distracting the team members and lowering their productivity too much.
4. Create shared knowledge databases
Shared knowledge databases enable all team members to have access to the same information and to know that others have this information, too. This can solve many communication problems, as well as improve bonds between team members.
5. Organize a system of overlapping times for communicating in different time zones
In virtual teams, team members are often located in different time zones. In order to eliminate communication time delays for crucial issues, it is important to determine a period when everyone is online and working and to schedule meetings during that time.
6. Understand cultural differences
Virtual teams are usually composed of members from different cultures. These cultural differences could cause communication problems, so it is important to understand and accept them. There are many ways to do that. One way might be to ask each team member to introduce their country and culture by creating a short presentation.
7. Set up a project management system
In order to effectively manage a project, it is recommended to use project management software. There are many apps out there — test them and find out which one suits you best. For virtual teams, the best option is to manage projects in the cloud, as other team members can see their task list, deadlines and other important details. Other than that, most of the traditional project management tips apply. If you are interested in learning more about project management, read the project management series.
8. Collaboration on documents and spreadsheets
On every project, there will be documents that need to be read and/or edited by many people. Having a shared folder on Google Drive is the best option, as it allows both reading and editing the documents simultaneously. Also, some project management apps have file collaboration features.
9. Use screen sharing software
Screen sharing software allows team members to share their screens. In case of a problem, it is useful that a person could see what team member is exactly doing. Some examples of these tools are Team viewer and Join.me.
10. Track work hours and other measures of productivity
Tracking work hours is important, especially if you are paying the team members on a per-hour basis. It is the project manager's tool that will ensure that everyone is present at work and that every team member is working as much as he should.
Tracking work hours can also be used to estimate how much time each team member needs to complete tasks and how accurate he or she is in time estimates.
It is also a good idea to create weekly or monthly reports and to provide bonuses for the most productive team members.
11. Allow a degree of flexible work hours but also maintain some consistency
Team members working from home usually prefer flexible working hours. It is good to allow some flexibility, as they will work at times when they are most productive and when they have fewer distractions. However, determine a period when everyone has to be online and working. When everyone is present, it eliminates communication problems, such as time delays, and speeds up task completion in cases when a team member has to wait for a reply regarding a problem before he is able to continue working.
Virtual teams can be as effective as traditional teams. The goal of project manager is to apply the best management practices in order to achieve the project goals and meet the deadlines. Some of the tips and best practices are given above. If there are any tips and tricks that you have used and found effective, feel free to share them in the comments.
1. Lipnack, Jessica (2000) . Virtual Teams: People Working Across Boundaries with Technology. John Wiley & Sons. p. 352. ↩
2. Crampton, C. (2001), Catherine Cramton, The Mutual Knowledge Problem and its Consequences for Dispersed Collaboration, Organization Science, Vol. 12, issue 3, 2001 ↩