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9 Tips to Managing Virtual Teams Successfully

By Jeri T Denniston, Chief Marketing Strategist, Denner Group International    6-8-2011

Takeaways: Managing virtual teams is becoming more common as companies are widely dispersed geographically. Trust, communication, high touch, and soft skills are some of the key areas to incorporate in order to build and maintain successful virtual team performance.

Managing virtual teams is becoming more and more common, especially with today’s technology which allows teams to meet via the internet and web conferencing. Nevertheless, it presents its own set of challenges that are different from teams who meet face-to-face.  In her book, Virtual Team Virtual Team SuccessSuccess-A Practical Guide for Working and Leading From a Distance, Darlene DeRosa offers some practical tips on putting to work the six hardest lessons virtual teams face:

  1. Focus on people issues: Virtual teams rise or fall on the human interactions: communication flow, trust and productivity. The leader needs to create ways for people to interact-mix your task teams, find ways to shine a spotlight on individuals and celebrate your team’s successes as a team. 

  2. No trust, no team: This was one of the key differentiators between high-performing teams and the rest of the pack. Make sure your team is empowered to make decisions and let them act on those decisions. Help manage conflicts before they create permanent rifts. 

  3. “Soft skills” are essential: DeRosa and her partner Rick Lepsinger found that interpersonal skills make a huge difference in virtual team performance. Teams that have been through team-building and interpersonal skill development activities perform better than those that haven’t. Training as a group seems to matter, individual skill development doesn’t always help the team. 

  4. Watch out for performance peaks: Teams that have been together a long time (more than three years) tend to be more successful than teams working together for less time. Yet many teams peak  after a year and then performance levels off or even declines. Clearly define team roles and accountability. Periodically examine the team’s performance by getting feedback from various stakeholders and share that feedback with the team. 

  5. Create a “high touch” environment: Technology has made virtual working possible, but isn’t a perfect substitute for human interaction. If you can get the team together physically, even once a year, do it. In the meantime, use a variety of tools and use rich tools like webmeetings and videoconferencing when it’s appropriate to remind people that those other team members are real live humans as well, not just screen names. 

  6. Virtual team leadership matters: Their research shows that leadership does, in fact, have a statistically significant correlation with team performance. Effective virtual team leaders overcome the limitations of distance by being especially sensitive to interpersonal communication and cultural factors. Real conversations have real benefits.

Three tips to keep in mind when managing virtual teams.

Building trust.
It’s important to have the first meeting face-to-face so team members can bond. Following that, meetings can be held virtually. Also ensure that all team members are responsive to others on the team, responding promptly to emails and phone calls. Accountability and follow-through are important as well in building trust among the team.

Team member selection.
Look for members who are both technically proficient and have good interpersonal skills. Communication is especially important to help virtual teams feel connected. Comfort with technology becomes an important concern as well.

Managers should maintain constant communication with team members via phone, email and even social media. Set up a private social media site where team members can share updates, challenges, and successes.

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