Managing from afar

Effectively working with virtual teams
By Rodrigo Caetano
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/12/2011

Managing remotely is far from an easy task but more and more managers are required to do so. It requires determination and skills that go beyond technical expertise or basic management.

Managers who excel at leading virtual teams understand the importance of strong communication skills and are adept at keeping teams on track. They focus on identifying and communicating project objectives, establishing team structures, facilitating communication and managing the performance of each team member.

Clear project objectives

Projects involving virtual teams are like any other — they have sponsors, deliverables, timelines and milestones. But virtual teams require a greater emphasis on clear goals and communication. Imagine not knowing the precise importance of each project deliverable and then trying to convey tasks and priorities to a handful of people spread across the globe. To ensure an alignment of understanding among the virtual peers involved in a project, the description of each goal and outcome must be clear and simple.

Virtual team structures

In addition to knowing what needs to be done, team members must understand how their role fits within the virtual team. The overall team structure must be well-known and each team member must understand her role in the context of the project. If something isn’t clearly stated, people make assumptions, causing misunderstandings, mistakes and wasted effort.

A simple chart that identifies the main contact points and their areas of ownership can be a powerful tool to help reveal gaps and resolve overlaps within the team. If it’s a complex project with a large team, grouping team members logically and assigning a single point of contact for each group can help avoid miscommunication. Defining a clear structure also conveys the message everyone is part of a common initiative, even though they may be in different departments and locations.

Communication skills

Communication is critical for the success of remote projects, not just from the team lead to the team members but among the members themselves. Set up a common communication tool and data storage location, such as an intranet page or file directory, and post the team structure chart and all relevant information about the project. Have the team use the same location to store project information and files. Using a central repository for project information avoids issues with multiple file versions and local backups and enables everyone to easily find the most up-to-date information and contact points for the project.

In addition, invest in improving the team’s communication skills. During conference calls, for example, it is easy for people to hit mute and passively listen in or even multitask rather than actively participating in a meeting. Avoid this by having shorter and more focused calls with relevant contributors. Ensure each meeting has a clear agenda and all team members are engaged and involved in the meeting.

Since virtual teams communicate primarily through email, training on effective written communication is another good investment. Any improvement in how the virtual team communicates will yield positive results for the project.

Performance management

The biggest challenge to managing remotely is the lack of face-to-face conversations with team members. For many managers, the inability to see an employee’s reaction makes the process extremely difficult and, therefore, they might avoid giving feedback. To lead effectively, virtual leaders need to become accustomed to the different format and listen more carefully to team members.

Being clear about expectations and not waiting too long to provide feedback allows a leader to support and assist each team member in resolving any issues. It also gives the employee an opportunity to ask questions and ensure she is on track with expectations. When done well, regular individual and peer-review discussions can be a source of mutual trust between managers and remote team members.

Adding to the challenge, some matrix organizations have employees reporting directly to a local manager who is responsible for evaluating their performance. But, in reality, an employee may report to a virtual manager on a daily basis. In this scenario, there needs to be regular communication with the local manager to ensure everyone is in sync and avoid any issues or misunderstandings regarding a team member’s performance.

Successful virtual teams have members who are highly motivated and able to quickly resolve any challenges that come up in their projects. Providing clear objectives, a solid team structure and regular guidance creates an optimal environment for a virtual team to thrive.

Rodrigo Caetano is an executive director at WhiteLeaf International Strategic Planning in Vancouver. He can be reached at (604) 657-0023 or

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