I've managed virtual teams for over a decade -- and I'm still learning. I really had to up my game in 2013, when I relocated from Kansas to Costa Rica. At the same time, I was launching Lean Labs. Now, I manage clients, web designers, inbound marketing consultants, and web app developers on three continents (though most are US-based).
I've made a few mistakes managing my new virtual team. Special care needs to be afforded to those who work in locations apart from you. Here, I share my experiences, insights and tips to successfully manage virtual teams.
Managing Virtual Teams: Lessons Learned
1. Schedule Your Week
Your team will be as consistent and available as you are. Set the tone. If you don't want people stepping out at 11am to run errands without notice, neither should you. If you don't want people to take Friday off without notice, neither should you.
Set your work schedule a week in advance and communicate the schedule to everyone, they should follow suit.
Tip: Collaborative team calendars are helpful for managing personal days, vacations, and team meetings. Google Calendar, iCal, Webex and ReadyTalk are good tools.
2. Be Accessible
Working in a remote location can be a bit lonely. It can be frustrating when someone needs something and cannot get help. So, be accessible to your team. Something as simple as knowing that you can Skype at a moment's notice helps deal with the cabin fever feeling of working remote.
Tip: We suggest that virtual teams utilize Skype, chat, text, and the telephone. Notice, I did not mention email.
3. Keep Regular Contact
At a minimum, once a week you need to reach out and make live contact with members of your team. Check-in and see how things are going.
People get detached from their work and their team, so show that you value your team and their work by checking in often, live.
4. Avoid Email for Managing Projects & Urgent Issues
DO NOT rely on email for project specs, tasks, documents, output, or updates. Email offers no structure, no efficiency, and if you depend on it heavily for project management, you should expect your entire business to be as messy as your inbox.
Tip: Trello, Jira, and Zendesk are great for managing projects and tasks.
If you want a same-day reply, do not send the request via normal virtual channels. Sure, enter the request in your task management app, but follow that up with a phone call and/or text message. Urgent tasks always require more than an email notification. Plus, if you don't want people nervous about missing an urgent issue, check their email and task apps all day, make sure they know you'll draw their attention to them when they come about.
5. Take Issues Offline, IMMEDIATELY
There is almost nothing more frustrating than an email-based argument. Refuse to participate.
Never scold or complain via digital communication. It's very difficult to control the voice and tone perceived by the recipient.
So, if you have an issue to address or want to highlight a problem, pick up the phone.
Tip: Scheduling regular live communication allows for issues to be brought up sooner, rather than later. It also fosters stronger relationships overall.
6. Monitor Work
You should at least know what will be accomplished on a weekly basis by everyone on your team. Require that daily progress updates are recorded in your task management app.
Don't ask for complicated reports, as this lowers efficiency. Instead, design a work flow that adds structured updates to tasks, allowing daily updates to happen naturally.
Tip: On a daily basis, at minimum, your team needs to let you know: What's done? What's next? And, what, if anything, is in the way of making progress?
7. Document and Automate your Communications
- If someone's supposed to write a morning agenda, document it.
- If someone's supposed to submit a timesheet, automate it.
- If someone's supposed to respond quickly, detail that in an SLA agreement.
Because communication is THAT important, make sure that the standards are documented and known to all.
8. Encourage Informal Discussions
Whether it's through Skype, instant message, or FaceTime, have an open dialog with your remote team and remember that people are social creatures. For example, remember that time when you took the time to learn that Sue's daughter is sick and kept Sue up all night, you didn't take personal offense to her for not having seen and replied to your 5am email.
Tip: We use Hipchat and encourage daily updates as well as a culture of friendly banter throughout the day. A little friendly chat shortens the day, fosters cooperation, and helps you remember you are part of a team.
9. Make Status, Priorities, and Expectations Clear
Nothing is worse than feeling like you spent the whole day working on the wrong problem. What's worse is expecting a certain priority addressed when, in fact, your team is working on something else. Schedule sprints of work that prioritize what needs to be done, who's responsible, and the due date.
Tip: Task management software is a great way to handle this. Asana, Trello, Jira, and Zendesk help prioritize what needs to be done for your whole team. They can even identify who's responsible for ordering pizza for your next office party. After all, some details are just too important to miss.
10: Urgent and Email Don't Mix
If you need a same-day reply, don't rely on email. Sure, you know they're working today, but are they constantly scanning their inbox for hot issues today? If so, that's pretty inefficient. Urgent requests require more than an email notification. Plus if you don't want people nervous about missing an urgent issue, check their email and task apps all day, make sure they know you'll draw their attention to them when they come about.
Tip: We encourage our team to check email in the morning and then close it throughout the day. It can be a great boost to productivity!
11. Video Updates Rock
Show your team who you are. Show them how you work. Let them get to know you by watching you. Rather than sending a dry report via email containing upcoming opportunities, etc., why not flip on the web cam and share the info via video? (I do.)
Culture is a top-down thing and it's hard to establish when working remote. Video updates will share personality, allow multi tasking, inject human-ness to remote work.
In your vids, when the team sees you're excited, they'll get excited. When the team sees you care, they'll care.
(Check this out: I once hired someone who applied for a social marketing position via YouTube video. I felt like I knew him before we even spoke by phone. He had SO much more personality than all the resumes I received. Stand-out and communicate with video when working remote!)
Tip: Youtube allows you to capture web cam video with two clicks (Record, Stop). You can instantly publish as public, unlisted, or private. Google Hangouts and Skype are great for live video conferencing.