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Summary:

If miscommunication or fuzzy delegation of responsibility can hurt co-located teams, these mistakes can torpedo virtual ones. That’s why experts on managing virtual teams stress talking not just about what you’re working on, but how you’re going to work on it as well.

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Managing a virtual team is like managing a traditional team on steroids. If miscommunications and blurry understandings of responsibility will hurt you in an office-based team, they’ll torpedo your work if your team is hundreds of miles away. (On the upside, research indicates that you’re less likely to be irked by the human foibles and political intrigues of your co-workers when you’re not forced into close daily proximity.)

Which means that while tried-and-true management practices like setting measurable goals, holding people to account and praising success continue to hold in a virtual team setting, other aspects of being a boss need to be beefed up and refined for the specific case of remote teams. What are these essential tweaks for managing virtually? Blog Workshifting recently came up with a list of seven.

Old standbys, like providing your team with the proper tools, are solid reminders but probably won’t come as an eye-opener to most — however, one tip in particular may have never occurred to managers of remote teams in quite the way Workshifting puts it. The blog suggests:

Tell them how to manage up. Telework team members aren’t in the office all the time learning how you work. Instead of making your team members figure out the best time to get your attention – tell them. Let them know the best topics to cover via email and the ones they should call about. Also inform them of those things they can just handle and never tell you. Or the ones they can handle and tell you after the fact.

As managers, we spend a lot of time trying to figure out the right ways to direct employees, to coach their performance and to recognize them properly. Why not also let employees know how they should deal with you as their manager? It would save a lot of time and frustration.

This is in line with advice from communication coach Yosh Beier, who stressed in an earlier interview with WebWorkerDaily that teams that aren’t physically present in the same space need to talk not just about the ‘what’ of their work but also the ‘how,’ delving into the process and guidelines that the team will use to reach its goals and communicate. How are we making decisions? How do we give each other feedback? How do we want to deal with conflict? These are the sorts of questions Beier suggested teams discuss.

Of course, most teams are busy, and Beier acknowledged that in the rush of everyday work and under the pressure of deadlines, it can seem like a waste of time to have these seemingly touchy-feely chats. But Workshifting has another tip that may help you use your communication time more effectively, making space to discuss the hows as well as the whys.

Communicate instead of checking in. Managers should regularly communicate with the team – both individually as well as in a group. But it’s important to use that time productively. If employees are meeting their deadlines and delivering quality, don’t use the time for “status reports”. There’s nothing more boring than a “Let’s go around the room and have everyone tell us what they’re working on” meeting.

Do you find you have to be more explicit about how to communicate when you’re managing a virtual team? 

Image courtesy of Flickr user nOnick.

  1. David Robins Monday, March 19, 2012

    Virtual teams should also use a tool that is designed specifically for virtual team’s collaboration and project management like http://www.binfire.com

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  2. Great post, Jessica. Understanding how to manage virtual teams is a must–after all, they aren’t going anywhere. If anything, we’ll see an increase in the amount of employees who work virtually in the future.

    As you noted, proper communication is imperative. This is why social performance (feedback in real-time and increased collaboration), needs to be embraced when managing virtual teams. By doing so, everyone is kept up to date on goals and objectives, and teams can perform at the ultimate level since they know what’s working and what isn’t.

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