Managing Your Virtual Team

Managing without WallsIt’s all good and fine to say you need to learn how to work with distributed teams of people. But how — exactly — do you do it? How do you schedule meetings so that somebody isn’t always getting up ultra-early or working really, really late? How do you know what staff members are working on if you can’t sit down with them and have them show you? How do you handle the integration of teams when the members can’t see each other across the table?

Those are the types of question answered by Colleen Garton and Kevin Wegryn in their highly practical, quite readable book, Managing without Walls: Maximize Success with Virtual, Global, and Cross-Cultural Teams (MC Press, $37.95).

If you come from a traditional management background, there’s a lot to learn when you move into a virtual environment. That’s a structure where telecommuting is encouraged, where work takes place offshore or where a given project is undertaken by a team brought together in three locations for the duration of the effort and that then disperses so that individuals can move onto other projects.

Most of the time, these kinds of management situations are “hybrid” – somebody is managing a team or project that involves the local folks plus the remote folks.

The skills you need in this situation are unique. You need to learn how to manage across functional and geographic areas and overcome obstacles of culture and language.

For example, as the authors bring up in the book, do you know how to handle remote workers in a team meeting? If those who are attending physically forget there are people participating by phone alone, they can easily “make decisions without asking for input or opinions from the remote callers.” (I know; as somebody who has telecommuted for easily a decade, it has happened to me numerous times.) The result? “All these issues lead to the remote workers feeling ignored, undervalued, and neglected.” Eventually, those participants may decide not to bother participating at all. Flag that as a potential management problem.

In that situation, here’s a small tip worth remembering: “…A good leader will use every opportunity to build rapport and trust with team members. People start to recognize voices after a time, so even on a call with 20 people, it is possible to know who is speaking without needing that person announced. As the virtual manager, focus your attention learning the different voices so that you can respond to each person by name rather than constantly asking, ÔWho is speaking?’ Team members will feel more valued if you recognize them. Having said this, not everyone on the call will recognize who is speaking, so rather than asking a person to state his or her name, use it when you respond so that everyone else knows who spoke… ÔThank you, Francesca, for sharing that information’…”

Chapters cover a myriad of topics from choosing team members who will work well in a virtual setting to how to handle time differences, adjust to cultural differences, what mechanisms to use for communication, how to establish processes, even how to address conflicts.

One recommendation — a simple one, but effective in my experience — is to make sure that each team member has clearly defined objectives and deliverables on a weekly basis. That gives you, as the manager (whether or not they report directly to you) a way to determine how well they’re keeping up on their commitments. Another suggestion: “Ask your team members to write a short description each month of what they did in the month towards meeting their objectives.” (That comes in real handy when you’re writing up the annual performance review for that person.)

Wondering how to schedule meetings where people are scattered in half a dozen places around the globe? Consolidate regions and hold separate meetings — one for each. Garton and Wegryn show how to set up a spreadsheet listing each team member and his or her region and time zone. This is guaranteed to save you time, since you won’t be going through the time difference calculation every time you need to put together a meeting. (The appendix includes a template.)

In coverage on creating and managing the virtual team, the authors provide useful interview questions – and even an evaluation form – to help determine a candidate’s suitability to participate in the virtual team.

The book does tend to drag. It’s 400-plus pages, albeit packed with useful information; but face it, even useful information can drag on. Two chapters I would have left out: “Outsourcing” and “Time Management.” The outsourcing one has interesting points, but it’s too sketchy to really cover the topic; and the time management one, while useful, includes techniques that have nothing to do with virtual team management. Also, I’d suggest putting the tools and templates online so readers can download them.

Overall, I haven’t read another book that addresses the ins and outs of managing virtual teams in such nitty-gritty detail. Even if you’ve been working with distributed people for years, Managing Without Walls will teach you something. It’s not a casual read — it’s too long for that. But it will prove a handy reference to dip into on a regular basis as part of your own management development efforts.

Useful Links

Managing without Walls: Maximize Success with Virtual, Global, and Cross-Cultural Teams by Colleen Garton and Kevin Wegryn