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.