Ties that Bind

….or Strategies for Building a Successful Virtual Team

Are you in a virtual team? Yes? No? Maybe you’re not sure? Well, do you work with people who aren’t sat in the same room as you, whom you have to communicate with using the Internet and related communication technologies? I’m guessing that most people reading this blog are going to say yes to that one. I’ve already written quite a few posts that have touched on virtual teams but it is still an area in which we are finding our feet.

Ripley Daniels is a prolific blogger for Without the Stress. He enjoys sharing insights gained through years of travel, consulting and entrepreneurship and has written a guest blog post for us on strategies that we can implement to help us build a successful team. Ripley is an editor at Without The Stress, a passport, travel visa, and immigration advisory firm located in Los Angeles.

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Building a successful team and keeping it running smoothly is always a challenge. But this challenge is magnified enormously when the team members happen to be located several miles away from each other. Yet it is an undeniable fact that the virtual team is no longer a thing of the future—it is a thing of the present and in today’s high-tech world, very much a reality. In fact, it is a reality I am quite familiar with because I live it every day. You see, my company is completely remote. My “tough day at the office” happens all the time but it doesn’t take place in a physical office. My team is scattered in a physical sense, yet my continual challenge is to keep it unified in a virtual sense. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to pull off, but we have learned many valuable lessons and have come up with a few simple strategies to make it work. By using them, our team has not only able to survive the chaos of remote interaction, but over time has become a well-oiled machine that is fully functional, highly motivated, and very efficient. Here are a few of these effective strategies:

  1. Don’t skimp on the IT: In a virtual environment, your primary substitute for physical interaction is electronic interaction. So don’t be stingy when it comes to equipping your team members with the tools they need to not only do their work effectively but also to reach out and touch one another whenever they need to. For any team to function well, communication is essential. But for remote teams, it is critical. Here are some of the real-time communication tools you should strongly consider for your virtual team members:

    • Laptops equipped with a set of standardized office production software and cameras

    • Internet connectivity with communication technologies (e.g., Skype)
    • Technology for conference calling
    • PDAs equipped with business apps
    • Instant messaging services (including mobile)
    • Use of social media
    • Video conferencing technology

  2. Disseminate news regularly to team members: A weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly newsletter is a great idea. It should contain updates on important ongoing projects, the latest industry news, tips on how your team members can do their jobs more effectively, interesting articles, and postings of what’s happening in team members’ personal lives. Include photos and news about marriages, graduations, etc. And don’t forget upcoming birthdays! The newsletter can be supplemented with regular email communication within the team, especially to announce important developments or emergent breakthroughs.

  3. Hold regular “team meetings”: Use an audio/video conferencing tool such as Skype to stay in touch and keep everyone on the same page. Allow team members to share project updates. Use the meetings as a means of disseminating general information of interest to the entire team as well as a means of facilitating social interaction among team members. Encourage team members to follow up with phone calls and/or email communication among each other.

  4. Clarify roles and responsibilities: Maintaining the delicate balance between individual autonomy and team collaboration is not easy. The most important ingredient in this mix is complete clarity among team members as to each individual’s skill set, role, and responsibility within the team. It is important that every team member knows how his or her job affects the rest of the team, and vice-versa. It’s also important that team members know exactly which other team member(s) to contact for help or assistance in specific areas. Whenever changes or modifications to individual roles or to team structure are made over time, they need to be documented and clarified to all. Also, every employee needs to be aware at all times of his/her personal deliverables and associated deadlines.

  5. Exercise strong leadership: When all is said and done, the success or failure of a team rests largely on the shoulders of its leadership. This is true for any team but it is especially true for a virtual team. When the team membership is remote, the leader needs to be accessible and responsive. He or she must be willing to make frequent contact with team members and to demonstrate a very high level of personal commitment to the smooth operation of the team. The leader also needs to have a prominent role in project planning and in providing constant focus on performance objectives, goals, and deliverables. He or she also needs to establish the parameters of an effective training program for new employees so that their integration into the virtual operational environment can be a smooth one.

Virtual organizations such as mine are now commonplace. In addition, many companies are setting up virtual teams to address specific business needs. But either way, it is important that any organization venturing into the virtual workplace knows what it is faced with and is prepared to deal with the unique challenges of running a remote team. The strategies for success work well. And if they are used correctly, transition to a remote work environment can become virtually seamless.

Wide Teams: A sustainable vision for creative work

A lot of us work in teams, but these teams are not necessarily people from our own organisation or people who are based at the same geographic location.

Avdi Grimm taken by REP3 ©2010

Virtual or Wide Teams require a different type of handling from a team that see each other most days.

One expert in this area is Avdi Grimm, creator of Wide Teams. Avdi published a post on my work on his blog last week and I’m lucky enough to be able to publish a post here on his experiences.

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For decades, workers in the US have been satellites of their jobs. If we are tech workers, we move to one of the big tech hubs like San Francisco or Seattle in order to find work in the first place. Then, if the company decides to open a new plant, or consolidate operations, we move where they tell us to go. Community, if we can find it, is a temporary byproduct; a transient perk. We get used to seeing extended family only once a year. The notion of a “sense of place” is all but forgotten.

This isn’t the life I wanted for myself and my family. I wanted to choose where we lived based on something other than what software companies were nearby. I wanted to be part of a long-lived community, while still having the freedom to take long trips from time to time.

I realized years ago that in order to make this dream a reality, I would have to become a remote worker. As a first step, I found an employer that was willing to let me telecommute for part of the week. That was a big step, and enabled me to start learning the skills necessary to work productively with a remote team. After that company, I joined a startup that was completely distributed. And after a year with them, I moved on to be a freelance software developer working exclusively with geographically distributed teams.

As I made this journey from traditional commuting to remote work, I realized that there were a lot of other knowledge workers in the same boat as me. There was a nascent movement towards remote work and dispersed teams, but everyone was for the most part feeling their own way: there was no central forum for discussing the practices and adjustments necessary to make distributed teams work. I started dreaming of a central place where remote workers could share lessons learned and compare notes.

In June 2010, I launched Wide Teams – a blog and podcast for dispersed teams and remote workers. I hoped that with this site I could begin to form a community around remote work, where we could discuss the tools, techniques, and practices that make for effective distributed teams.

In order to kick the site off with more than just my own observations, I started off by interviewing people in software development community, particularly the Ruby on Rails web development community, who were working in distributed teams. I was immediately blown away by the feedback I got. Everyone I talked to was so eager to talk about their experience with remote work! It was as if they had been saving up for months or years to share their thoughts on this topic. Everyone I spoke to was very excited to give their perspective and tell of their experiences, and eager to hear about how other distributed teams were operating. Clearly, I had hit a nerve!

Since then, I’ve interviewed everyone from developers to CEOs to nonprofit community managers about their work with remote teams. I’ve learned that there are many reasons to form a distributed team, including:

  • Being able to find the perfect job candidate by widening the net to include people outside one metropolitan area.
  • Holding down costs by hiring team members who live in areas where the cost of living is lower.
  • Maintaining a presence in multiple time zones.
  • Making jobs available to people who would otherwise be unable to work, such as stay-at-home parents or people with disabilities.
  • Forming low-overhead startups by holding off on buying a brick-and-mortar office and instead working entirely from home.
  • Eliminating the environmental impact associated with a daily commute.
  • …and many other reasons.

The people I’ve talked to have shared a wealth of insights into how to make dispersed teams work well. I could never share all the tips I’ve learned in one article (for that you’ll just have to subscribe to the blog!) but a few lessons that stand out include:

  • Making sure your team members meet up in person at least a couple of times a year.
  • Maintaining a level playing field for both remote and in-office workers – for instance, by making sure everyone uses the same communications tools, even if they are in the same room with each other.
  • Setting aside time for culture-building activities, even if they don’t contribute directly to the bottom line.

Those are just a few examples of the lessons I’ve learned both firsthand and from the remote team members I’ve interviewed.

Almost six months into this adventure of writing and podcasting about dispersed teams, one thing is clear: remote work is here to stay. More and more companies are embracing this model, and reaping the benefits. There are unique challenges associated with distributed teams, but none of them are insurmountable. The more we can share our experiences, on sites such as this one, the more we enable a future wherein the work can come to the worker instead of vice-versa.

Are public bodies gambling with Smart Working?

I’ve been following Don Cooke on Twitter on @enhanced_teams for a while now and he posts a lot of useful links on distributed/dispersed team working. This makes sense, he is the founder and co-owner of CAL, the smart working team specialists working with clients in the public and private sector to raise team performance and lower operating costs through the introduction of smarter works of working. They help organisations ask “how good are we as a team and could we be better?” The company practice what they preach and use ‘best of breed’ software and analytics tools internally. They have also produced a smarter-Working Costs CALculator which uses industry gathered data to use stats such as sickness absence and travel costs to show organisation could be saving if their staff started working remotely.

CAL has had worked with clients from the public sector, both within academia and local government, including Coventry University, Southampton Solent University (working on The Digital Enterprise Programme), Hampshire County Council, Sussex County Council and the city of Westminster. Don regularly talks to audiences on the effective use of remote and mobile technologies in today’s business world and he’s written a blog post for us asking Are public bodies gambling with Smart Working?

Don lives with his wife and four children in West Sussex and blogs at http://remote-aspect.blogspot.com/.

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Many public bodies already have or are considering the introduction of smarter working teams with the goal of reducing office and accommodation costs, even more so in the light of cuts, but are some organisations gambling on it being a success?

My organisation, CAL has been involved in Smarter working teams for over twenty years and have been involved in many successful projects to create the right team accommodation to support and encourage Smarter working. But many organisations take a chance at their success by not undertaking initial work to understand how the teams work and how this will change as the team becomes smarter about how they deliver services.

I want to look at what the crucial factors are in getting smarter working teams and how you can adopt these simple steps into your project or at your organisation.

What do you want to achieve?
Now this may sound a silly question, but very often different managers, departments or directors can want different things, so it is important that this is understood. For example a manager may just want to keep his team area as near as possible to what they have, as they see it as an attack on their team, to be resisted at the expense of others. A department may want to explore different ways of working, encourage part-time working or job share. A director is likely to be looking at the bottom line savings, which the board have agreed to the project based upon making these savings, so it’s all about ROI.

What do your teams think?
We often find that the team members have not been consulted and a feeling of ‘This is a stupid change that will result in no benefit to me and I will lose my desk!’ can set in. Of course this is never the aim of Smart working teams, but any organisation failing to engage fully with their teams will miss the major benefits and an opportunity to create new and dynamic teams, working more effectively.

Setting goals and objectives

We have lost count of the number meetings we have attend, where the first question is; why are we not seeing the savings we predicted from the introduction of smart working? This is usually followed by a catalogue of the above mistakes, where stakeholders have different ideas of what they thought they were buying and engagement at team level has been poorly communicated. The result is there are no real objectives or goals relevant and measurable. So always understand what you want to achieve and the goals that need to be set at every level, from director to team member. Also make sure you understand them all, not just the lowering of accommodation costs.

Measuring on going success
If you can’t measure it you can’t achieve it. The most frequently asked question we get is ‘How can you measure such an indefinable benefit, as Smart team working?’ The answer is looking at the benefits and aligning with costs, such as higher occupancy of a building for the full day, not just at the peaks of the day. Reduction in service delivery times, because teams are working dynamically and the old static team’s boundaries have been removed. Obviously these are just examples and each organisation will be different in how these are found. But by tracking the savings on-going you will start to see savings building month by month, then when the question is asked, ‘What have we saved?’ a comprehensive answer can be given.

Hopefully these pointers will help you avoid the pitfalls before you embark of your smart working journey. If you have any questions about smarter working practices just contact me.