By Katherine (Kit) Brown-Hoekstra | STC Fellow
It’s hard to believe it’s been 13 years since Brenda Huettner, Char James-Tanny, and I wrote Managing Virtual Teams: Getting the Most from Wikis, Blogs, and Other Collaborative Tools. While the tools have changed and improved significantly in the intervening years, much of the advice about managing the human side of the equation is still relevant—perhaps even more so in light of recent pandemic challenges.
Many people are just discovering what those of us who’ve been doing this for a while already know: No amount of technology will solve the people and process issues you face. When teams first start working virtually, it exposes the weaknesses in team dynamics, processes, and systems.
In light of that revelation, here are five ways to succeed in a virtual, collaborative environment.
Build a Shared Vision and Goals
The best teams, whether virtual or not, have a shared vision and goals. Everyone on the team knows why they’re there and what their role is, as well as why they’re doing a particular project and how it fits with the organization’s overall strategy. When teams have a shared vision and goals that they believe in, they become engaged, creative problem solvers.
To create that shared vision and goals, teams also need to feel ownership. Starting with the kickoff meeting, discuss the following, and incorporate your team’s feedback:
- Tie the project vision to the overall organization strategy.
- Identify the project goals, schedules, budgets, and constraints. Ensure that you understand the team’s needs as well, and build those needs into the project (for example, vacation time, tools, training, time zones).
- Be transparent about budgets, challenges, and risks.
- Identify any holes in skills, personnel, tools, and so on, and then follow through with fixing issues.
- Build rapport by encouraging personal interaction and casual connections outside team meetings. (When you work virtually, Slack and other messaging tools can replace the water cooler chats, but be sure to set boundaries so that team members don’t overuse them and annoy people.)
Be Explicit in Your Expectations
The best leaders provide clear direction and expectations. For multicultural virtual teams, clarity of expectation is particularly important. Discuss these expectations regularly, and be flexible enough to adjust them if something isn’t working.
Everyone comes to a project with a particular set of expectations, assumptions, skills, and frames of reference. When establishing the team’s charter, it’s important to take these things into consideration and to have open discussions about them.
With clear expectations, team members know what they need to do and how their work affects everyone else on the team. No one needs to be micromanaged, because they know what they need to do and can hold each other accountable.
- Create a written charter that outlines the vision, goals, and expectations that the team has discussed and agreed to. (It should be no more than two pages.)
- Survey the team to ensure that you understand their assumptions about time, deadlines, hierarchy, and so on, then come to agreement about what these mean in the context of your team.
- Clearly define roles and responsibilities, dependencies, and consequences to the project if prerequisites are not met.
- Check in regularly and give immediate, constructive feedback. Don’t wait until the annual review to tell people what they need to work on or what they’re doing well.
- Focus on strengths.
- Build trust by modeling the behavior and attitude you want from the team.
- Remove roadblocks.
Communication is the number one challenge with any project, even more so with a virtual team. No news is never good news in a team context, and things tend to escalate quickly on virtual teams. You can avoid these issues by building in communication and follow-through.
- Do what you say you will, when you say you will.
- Until you’re shown otherwise, assume that people want to do a good job and are competent.
- Set up regular checkpoints with the team.
- Empower independent decision making (your team should have enough information to be able to make day-to-day decisions without needing to involve you).
- Make sure you are following meetings with a summary of decisions and action items that are clearly assigned and time-boxed. (This is particularly important for multicultural teams because of potential language and time zone challenges.)
- Encourage people to ask for help and to communicate both issues and accomplishments.
- Celebrate milestones, accomplishments, and personal wins. Give encouragement when it’s needed.
- Admit mistakes, and offer solutions if you are able.
- Build your skills.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate using appropriate channels.
Ensure Equal Access
Even in 2020, internet and technology access vary globally (for example, some mountain communities might not have good cell service or access to high-speed internet, even in the U.S.). Depending on people’s personal situations, they might not have space at home for a private office.
To the extent possible, companies need to help ensure equal access to technology and corporate resources:
- Ensure team laptops, mobile phones, and other equipment are up to date.
- Check internet bandwidth, and pay for an upgrade if needed.
- Keep project files in a centralized repository that everyone can access.
- Ensure that team members have a tech support/IT person available during their work hours.
- Set up and use email schedulers so that global team members aren’t getting bombarded with meetings scheduled during their off hours.
- Share the pain of global meetings by rotating the time so that one team member isn’t always getting up in the middle of the night.
- Establish backup protocols and check in/check out protocols so that people can download files if they need to work in an area that has poor connectivity.
- Ensure that team members have a global calling and data plan if they are working with international colleagues.
- Ensure that everyone is using the same version of software applications.
- Be flexible and understanding if connectivity is an issue at certain times.
- Provide training on working virtually.
Measure Results, Not Time on the Clock
Office-based cultures often make the mistake of punishing or rewarding people for time on the clock rather than for effectiveness and results. This measure does not translate well to working virtually for several reasons:
- When you work virtually, you can optimize your tasks more easily to work with your personal rhythms.
- Most people (once they get set up properly) can focus and get more done in a shorter time, because they can control their interactions more easily.
- People are more engaged and motivated when leadership is focused on results rather than clock watching.
- Ideas for alternative performance measures include:
- Customer satisfaction
- Teamwork and quality of team interactions
- Deadlines met
- Awards for content quality
- Number of revisions required (as long as you’re also tracking other factors that can affect this)
- Problems resolved satisfactorily
- Ideas generated and tested
- Technical accuracy and completeness
Communication, clarity, compassion, access, and accountability are key to successful team management. Working virtually requires that team members become more autonomous and communicate clearly. The benefits include higher team engagement and greater efficiency, as well as reduced office space requirements and costs.
Katherine (Kit) Brown-Hoekstra (email@example.com) is an STC Fellow and an experienced consultant with over 25 years of experience in technical communication, much of it working with localization teams. As principal of Comgenesis, LLC, Kit provides consulting and training to her clients on a variety of topics, including controlled language, localization, content strategy, and content management. She speaks at conferences worldwide and publishes regularly in industry magazines.
Brown, M. Katherine, Brenda Huettner, and Charlene James-Tanny. 2006. Managing Virtual Teams: Getting the Most from Wikis, Blogs, and Other Collaborative Tool. Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.