Virtual Team_spekulatorBy Kevin Eikenberry

More and more of us are leading teams that are remote or virtual. To get some answers to the questions that I have been asking, and some of our clients have mentioned, I went to Wayne Turmel, my friend and an expert on this topic and the tools that you can use to become more successful in this area. Here is the result of our email interview.

Kevin: Why is being the leader of a remote team different than leading a co-located team? 
Wayne: It’s hard enough to be a good leader when everyone is in the same place, but we had ways to make it work. Remember “Management by walking around?” Well, it’s a long walk to Bangalore, brother. You have people on different time zones, different schedules and often, your teams are not only “remote” (meaning they are all over the place) but “virtual”, meaning that you have responsibility for the project but don’t have a direct reporting structure with the people on the team. You have to get them on task, focused on the purpose and build trust, only you don’t get to throw a pizza party or call everyone together around your desk. It’s the same tough job, but you’re now at the mercy of technology to do your job.
Kevin: What are some of the challenges leaders face on a daily basis when managing remotely?
Wayne: Think about doing the project manager part of your role. You have to give people the big picture so they can do their jobs. That requires constant communication, not only the “official” company news but the light gossip and human news that builds and maintains connections. Then you have to help them work together, not only on the relatively simple “task” stuff but also how to build trust and keep communication flowing when people might not ever physically meet? Are you setting the expectations for communication and working together, and then modeling and reinforcing those behaviors? If you aren’t, you’ll wind up spending all your time putting out fires and running interference between team members. The single biggest challenge is creating a climate where this communication can happen without you, otherwise you become a bottleneck instead of a conduit.
Kevin: What are some of the mistakes organizations make when putting virtual teams together
Wayne: The single biggest mistake (and it causes and helps complicate all the others) is not acknowledging the differences between managing co-located teams and teams that are scattered all over the globe. Companies just cut travel and say “use webmeetings,” like it’s the same thing … and it isn’t. In general, companies don’t give managers the support and training they need. In terms of support, what tools do they have? Tools like intranets, wikis and webmeeting technology? Often they provide things like a WebEx license, but no real instruction on how a manager uses it effectively. Managers are left to figure it out for themselves. You’ll have some managers – the early adopters who jump on it – but the majority will take a look, shrug and go back to managing by email.
There is another problem, which is companies sometimes get stuck looking for big, institutional, enterprise-wide solutions. They can take forever for IT and Finance to agree on a system like SharePoint, meanwhile the day-to-day work of the team suffers, and the manager is frustrated. Then, even if they do provide the tools, most managers are never given the training on what tools to use when.
Kevin: When do you send out an email and when do you need to get the team together on a webmeeting?
Wayne: How does a manager build a real team when human connections are limited to technology? Some of the answers are so simple, but because managers are so swamped taking care of the day to day tasks that it’s easy to lose sight of that “important but not urgent” stuff that can be seen as “soft” or “touchy feely.” What are some of the things managers and team leaders can do TODAY without waiting for the larger organization? There are some really easy things. One is to just make sure that people on the team know each other. Who are they and where do they work? Human details like are they in an office or do they work from home? Do they have families? What are their interests? Those translate into work-related information like when they’ll be available, how they like to work (do they answer email all day long or in set blocks of time) and what parts of the project they are responsible for.
Then there are simple tools like Google Groups for collaboration and sharing documents with everyone at once, Skype for quick, free video calls to each other, NING to create social groups with automatic updates for building a cohesive team and sharing information.

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