Managing real people in virtual teams

Thanks to technology and globalisation, it is now possible to access the best talent anywhere in the world, but taking advantage of this enormous opportunity requires the specific ability to lead virtual teams, says Balvinder Singh Powar.

It’s a common refrain: in our globalised world, location is less important than the value provided by any individual employee. In theory, a team no longer needs to be co-located. A business with manufacturing in China, a design team in Italy, and back office in India, to say nothing of a worldwide sales team, should be able to work together perfectly efficiently. It should also bring lower costs, better access to markets, and the best and most diverse talent for each organisational function.

But harnessing these benefits depends on the effective management of virtual teams. Although technology has greatly improved workplace communication and synchronicity, there’s a huge role for management. Here are some pointers:

Be extra clear and write it down. Decisions might be transmitted efficiently via a teleconference to geographically dispersed staff. But do they fully understand it? Such meetings might have to more frequent than usual face-to-face interactions. Make sure instructions are ‘SMART’ (Specific + Measurable + Assignable + Realistic + Time-bound). Have a note keeper in every meeting who sets a clear agenda and provides a post-meeting summary. This helps avoid confusion and allows participants, especially non-native speakers, to check back to see if they have understood the discussion correctly.

Be reasonable about inconvenient time differences. A series of virtual meetings that span many time zones should be rotated so that the strain of connecting at untimely hours is distributed fairly among the various geographical areas.

Attend quickly to staff concerns and conflicts. Pay special attention to problems or questions from remote staff, because these can be harder to express or elicit than in face-to-face meetings. In particular, leaders should be more available to team members who work remotely and don’t get the chance to express their worries. Most importantly, don’t let problems fester. Address them as soon as possible so as to avoid entrenching conflicts. Consider organising calls to discuss less vital or even non-work matters as a way to ease tensions.

Use lowest common denominator technology: It’s not always the most sophisticated technology that best gets your message across. As a rule, use the simplest technology that works for everyone. Video conferences are relatively simply for most executives. Being able to see one another enhances team connectedness and keeps people attentive. But don’t rule out the simple telephone. Of course, nothing beats face-to-face meetings with all their non-verbal clues. These should take place at least once a year, or at start of any major international project.