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Lines of Communications
Managing a virtual team is really no different than leading an in-house team. Or, is it?
The primary difference, of course, is the ability to have face-to-face conversations and interactions. So, in most cases, the same management strategies that work well for you with team members in the traditional sense should also apply with virtual team members across the country.
What you want to do is establish effective lines of communication and standards that everyone can live with. The best way to achieve this is to create a virtual team charter focused only on how the virtual team should interact with each other. This becomes the team’s measuring tool in determining how things are going and provides managers with a needed benchmark to compare and contrast the different approaches to managing a virtual team.
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Create a Virtual Team Charter
Your team charter is the measuring tool that will allow you to easily and effectively manage your virtual team. It’s fairly simple to create and it involves everyone on the virtual team. The way to set this up is use a video conference tool such as GotoMeeting or Webex for the session. That way, every team member can attend and participate in the creation or modification of your virtual team charter and watch it unfold on the computer screen. Here’s how the session should work.
Assign a team member the responsibility of keeping track on the computer screen - either using Word or PowerPoint - of all of the ideas and strategies that are suggested. Having the information updated in real-time serves the same purpose as having a flip chart in a meeting room.
There are three categories you want to develop: continue, start, and stop. If this is a new virtual team, then you’ll only initially develop one category: start. The follow-up charter will include the other two categories.
Let’s briefly go through each category so you can see how it should work.
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Continue What's Working Well
In the continue category, identify all the things that are working now in managing your team that could apply to your virtual team members. These are the things you want to continue doing to help the team achieve continued success.
Also, break out the ideas into job-related and people-related categories. For example, maybe you hold weekly meetings or webinars on GotoMeeting and they seem to work very well. In that case, that weekly activity is something you want to keep doing, so include it in the continue category under job-related.
On the people-related side, maybe you acknowledge your top performers each week during this same video conference and again, it is well perceived, so you put it into the same continue category under people-related.
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Start Brainstorming New Ideas
The start category is where you brainstorm some new ideas to help the team and team members maintain or improve its ability to achieve its goals. An overlooked source of information about how to manage virtual teams is the team members themselves.
Team members that are on their own in virtual teams have typically chosen that position because it fits into their current lifestyle. Find out from them what they would like to see from management to do their jobs. They can also tell you what is, and what is not, easy to provide management in terms of information.
Conversely, with everyone present in this meeting, it’s a great opportunity for the manager to voice what he needs from all team members for him to do his job as their manager. It’s important for the virtual team members to understand that the manager needs some information that moves to other parts of the organization, so this is an opportune time to get that in the open. Place some value on this information so the team members know this is something that needs to get done when it is requested by the manager.
All this gets discussed, and in the end, depending on what it is, the team or the manager can decide what gets included in the virtual team charter in the start category.
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Stop What's Not Working
The stop category is designed to put an end to the people and job related items that are no longer needed or just aren’t working. This is important to discuss because the items in this category can be real time wasters and sap the energy of team members.
In your follow-up meeting to discuss how things are going, you’ll review each of the same categories. What’s working stays in the continue category, but what’s not working goes to the stop category. If there are some new ideas or technologies that would better serve the virtual team, these get included in the start category.
As you can see, it's not that hard to do, and its impact on the team and the manager definitely makes it worthwhile.
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Siebdrat, Frank, Hoegl, Martin, and Holger, Ernest, "How to Manage Virtual Teams," (July 1, 2009), MIT Sloan Management Review, http://sloanreview.mit.edu/the-magazine/2009-summer/50412/how-to-manage-virtual-teams/