Getting others to follow you when they don’t have to – Virtual teams at times mean that team members don’t report up into the manager. Because there is no “hard line” relationship, team members can opt out of following a leader if they don’t believe in the leader.
Truly managing to deliverables – Leaders who manage virtual teams need to be comfortable with managing to deliverables; being very clear about what work needs to be done, what the deliverable needs to look like, when it has to be done, and who has to do it. Micro-managers who manage to activity versus deliverable will be very frustrated managing virtual teams because they typically can’t control activities.
Keeping everyone on the same page – Managing virtual teams means the leader has to rely on very concise, timely, regular, and relevant communication on activities, risks, and issues. When you don’t provide this type of communication, the team in Seattle may be just fine but the lone employee in London may be completely out of sync with what is going on.
How can effective working relationships be developed across time zones, cultures and languages?
Take the first step in developing the relationship – Take some time to get to know the virtual team member by initiating periodic phone calls or visits. Take a few minutes to find out about a person’s family or interests. Also take some time to understand a person’s unique challenges in his location. Things that may be taken for granted in your location may be impossible in another location.
Go to them – Yes I know that businesses are cutting back big time on travel. Sometimes, though doing things face to face is the best way to build relationships. Don’t be afraid to get on a plane once in a while to visit the team member in his work environment. Take time to know his team members, facility, and daily job. Also don’t forget to have dinner with him. Some of my most lasting and effective relationships were built over drinking sake, eating wiener schnitzel, or experiencing pickled fish stomach.
Share the inconvenience – Don’t make them the ones that get up extra early or stay late for conference calls. Share the inconvenience workload and do your share of the off-hours calls. Your actions of fairness and teaming will speak volumes to your team members.
Watch the slang with those who don’t share your language – When working with someone who doesn’t share your primary native tongue, use simple words that convey basic meaning. Flowery, colorful language is great for an English Literature class; not so good for communicating with a team member who must work to translate your language.
What about decision making and problem solving?
Don’t forget about the virtual team member – It’s easy to make decisions with those around you and later on “inform” the virtual team members of your decision. Keep focus on making them part of the decision making and problem solving process where relevant.
Use email – I’ve done many problem solving exercises with my teams using email as the means for documenting the problem, articulating alternatives, and providing resolution. It not only ensures everyone is included, but helps those who don’t share your native tongue by putting things in written format and permitting more time for translation.
Get on the phone – Sometimes you’ve just got to get on the phone to resolve a problem if it’s too unwieldy or sensitive for email, or if the email approach isn’t working. Get the pertinent team members together at a time that is least inconvenient for everyone and hash it out.
Keep a written audit trail of decisions – This is just good practice regardless of whether the team is virtual or not. Keep a spreadsheet or database of the decisions made or the resolution to problems so team members can ensure it reflects their understanding of the issue. It also helps avoid re-hashing issues already decided upon.