In the past I’ve had the opportunity to lead virtual teams and learned much from those experiences. But just recently I started an assignment where I am a contributor on a client project where every member of the team lives in a different location as does the client. It has been an interesting and valuable experience to be on the other side of the equation. This article is based on what I am learning from this experience.
Establish Processes, Roles and Channels – The project was already underway when I was brought in to provide expertise that the team didn’t already possess. This means that I had to get up-to-speed quickly because my assignment was already behind. Therefore many of the usual on-boarding steps were skipped. I had a one hour meeting with the project manager and then got a data dump of information to sort through. Meanwhile I had to fill out documents, establish billing parameters and learn about the client requirements. It certainly wasn’t unmanageable but I truly drank from a fire hose for the first week. While we have been able to make good progress, I am still learning about my role and where I can find the information that I need. Having a more organized onboarding would have saved me time and gotten me productive more quickly.
Construct a Practical Information Warehouse – Having an information warehouse is important for any team project, but for the virtual team it is even more crucial. Each member must be able to easily access both reference materials and edit active documents. This means that the file levels have to be intuitive and clearly labeled. It also means that active documents have a clear chain of revisions and versions. Finally, all team members must understand their responsibilities for maintaining the information and organization.
Over Communicate Rather Than Fall Silent – Now that I am playing as a contributor rather than the leader of this virtual team, I can see that my past levels of communication were woefully inadequate. I made far too many assumptions that the contributors were on track and had all of the resources they needed to do the job. I was too willing to rely on project milestones and deadlines to force my communications rather than reaching out on a regular basis to provide guidance to the team.
Keep Approval High on the List – From my position as a contributor I am in need of feedback on a regular basis. Since I don’t have the convenience of walking down to the project lead’s office to get a read on my progress, I am reliant on my manager to get the feedback to me. Most of the people you work with need to know if they are on track, and it is even more acute if the only contact is via email or cell phone.
Reach Out When Your Gut Tells You To – As a leader of this team, you get little information unless it’s on deadline or you ask for it. If one of your contributors has been too quiet, it’s time to reach out and communicate. Perhaps they are stuck on an issue that you can help them get over and they didn’t want to bother you. Or perhaps life has gotten them off track and they need some urging to get going again. It’s like the frontiersman guarding the palisade at night when an attack is imminent said, “It’s quiet out there…too quiet!” When it’s too quiet out there, start talking to your team.
Invest in Periodic, Physical Meetings – While virtual teams can bring together the best resources and save the organization a ton of money, don’t get cheap and never bring the team together. Having your team physically meet each other, put a face with a voice and share a common experience all serve to unify them and establish better working relationships. Work is about accomplishment and getting the project done, on time and under budget. But it is also about people and relationships and enjoying the camaraderie that comes with doing the job as a team.
Create and Manage to Clear Deadlines – Finally, you must establish clear and attainable deadlines for the project milestones and work with the team to accomplish them. While the early targets are often an educated guess, as you move the project forward you will gain a better understanding of what can be accomplished and can set realistic goals for each team member. Remember that they don’t always work at the same pace or at your pace. Allow them to work within their abilities and divide up the work so they are producing their very best. You and the project will benefit from clear leadership.