6 Best Practices for Successful Virtual Teams

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.Management


As of June 2013, Yahoo employees will no longer be allowed to work from home. Supposedly this new policy is part of CEO Marissa Mayer’s larger strategy for turning around ailing Yahoo. The smart money bets it’s something else: a disaster.  That train has left the station. Like it or not, no amount of wishing can turn back the clock to a time when a 9 to 5 office gig was the norm. Unless Mayer needs to immediately shed a third of her work force and can’t afford to care which third, I doubt the outcome will please her.

Virtual teaming is here to stay, whether we’re talking about senior officers of multinational corporations, solopreneurs working out of a spare bedroom, or something in between. Telecommuting vastly increases a company’s reach, attracting global talent without relocation costs or the overhead of a brick-and-mortar office. Virtual connectivity is a practical response to today’s business culture, requiring instant responsiveness to colleagues and customers, and work hours extending beyond 9-5, often well beyond. Virtual teaming is also a realistic adaptation to family realities where both spouses work, and someone needs to greet the school bus, look after sick children, or meet the plumber.

Virtual teaming embraces more than just full-time employees. For years, companies have been offloading increasing numbers of support roles and collaborative partnerships to virtual teams of 1099 consultants. Such contractors and consultants pay their own taxes, buy their own health care, fund their own 401K’s, show up when needed, and are easily shed when business is slow. When the economy tanked in 2007, international giant Cisco Systems could announce there would be no layoffs only by jettisoning a sizeable contingent of contractors.

Watching Yahoo’s train wreck unfold will be instructive for all of us, even – maybe especially – solopreneurs working from a home office. More and more small businesses operate as virtual corporations. The Cogent Executive pursues this model, managing business relationships spanning four states coast to coast, and two continents. Some I’ve never met face-to-face.

Don’t get me wrong. Mayer’s edict addresses very real headaches of virtual teaming. Virtual teams can be problematic, and when they don’t work their issues tend to be more severe than teams sharing the same office. Accountability is trickier. Communication and collaboration bogs down more easily. Mistrust is easily triggered and slowly healed, and they don’t have the social glue of conversations around the water cooler or in the lunch room.

Mayer’s error is a lack of vision and imagination: There is no way to put that genie back in the bottle. Rather than try to rewind corporate culture to a model that worked for a time that has come and gone, it would be much smarter to identify best practices that work for the world we woke up to this morning. Virtual teaming is here to stay.

So what DO we do?

  1. Make working virtually a privilege to be earned. Working remotely makes good workers better and bad employees worse. It’s a good idea to keep new employees on a short leash until they’ve proven their diligence and absorbed the organizational culture – especially if they’re relatively unseasoned.
  2. Push talent development. Employees working from home don’t have the natural opportunities for informal mentoring of those in an office setting. Ongoing in-service training becomes even more important, especially training in the “soft skills” so critical to the next generation of leaders. Without good management and leadership, a virtual workforce quickly flounders.
  3. Establish core work schedules. Define blocks of time when everyone will be at their desks, wherever they might be. The rapid cycles necessary to meet tight deadlines require accessibility and responsiveness during at least portions of the business week. This can be trickier with international teams spread across many time zones but is still a necessity, not a nice-to-have.
  4. Keep everyone connected. Use that core time for team meetings and 1-to-1’s, but also adopt virtual collaboration tools. Teams benefit from sharing a common instant messaging service and having it on during core time. It supports concise communication in the moment without picking up the phone or constantly monitoring email, both of which can become giant productivity black holes. Those working closely on a common deliverable may benefit from going one step further and videoconferencing via a tool such as WebEx or Skype when at their desks. Create an internet-accessible team dashboard to monitor projects, progress, and deadlines. Provide an online collaborative documents library. These are just a few of the highest-impact possibilities.
  5. Schedule face time.  Online collaborative meeting and work tools support instant connectivity across geography and time zones. All the same, something is lost. Face-to-face encounters create a chemistry that can’t yet be entirely duplicated. Invest in bringing your people together periodically to rub elbows, socialize, and strategize. The know-like-and-trust factor essential to a high performance team withers without it.
  6. Create accountability. From tracking hours and tasks to measuring management and leadership effectiveness, the team should monitor metrics for every dynamic they think is important to success. Measurement also gets competitive juices flowing as team members strive to outdo their previous performance, and helps focus everyone’s attention on what counts. What you pay attention to grows.

Are you looking for better ways to build and manage your virtual team? Contact me to learn how I can help.

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E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.
Managing Partner
The Cogent Executive LLC

Ann Hollier provides strategic consulting and performance coaching to high achieving senior executives and management teams. She specializes in change management, strategic planning and implementation, leadership development, and building world-class collaborative teams. Learn more at http://thecogentexecutive.com/

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.6 Best Practices for Successful Virtual Teams