Tips To Jumpstart Your New Virtual Team
By Nancy Settle-Murphy

Posted October 04, 2011

One of my clients was just anointed as the project lead for a new virtual team of a very visible project. She confessed that she has very little experience as a manager of virtual teams, though she does know what it’s like being part of a poorly run team, and she does not want to replicate this experience for her new team members.

Here are a few tips I shared with her to help her get her new team off to a fast start:

1. Choose the right people.

When you can choose your team members, look for people with diverse perspectives with a blending of skills, knowledge and experience. Important competencies include tolerance for ambiguity; sensitivity to cultural differences; willingness to work independently; ability and openness to communicate using a variety of methods; and keen listening skills.

2. Make shared goals explicit.

Virtual teams have few opportunities to correct misunderstandings, fine-tune agreements, or debate differences. Without shared goals, members can veer off in different directions and become derailed quickly. Allocate the time necessary for the kind of in-depth conversations needed to hammer out explicit goals that all understand and agree to. Set aside a series of virtual meetings right up front to create shared goals, and make sure that everyone has an opportunity to reflect and revise.

3. Develop ground rules tuned to a virtual team.

For example, agree on who needs to attend which meetings and how frequently. Be specific about the extent to which multitasking is acceptable on team calls. Discuss the consequences of failure to do important prework. Agree how conflicts will be resolved among members. Establish an agreed-upon protocol for handling distracting, disrespectful or disruptive behavior. Establish conventions for sharing, editing and posting vital documentation, including editing and approval rights.

4. Facilitate connections.

Team members who work virtually have few chances to get to know each other beyond their respective deliverables and due dates. You can facilitate the getting-to-know-you process many ways. For example, invite people to complete a bio that helps to draw out the real person behind the voice. Ask for a picture and information about special skills or qualities, values they live by, preferred communications method, etc. Post bios on a shared website. Face time is the best way to build a new team. Leverage corporate events, sales meetings and conferences to bring people together without making too big a dent in your budget.

5. Model best practices.

For example, show up to con calls on time, fully prepared to participate in a productive conversation. Be respectful of others’ ideas by practicing generous listening. Avoid the temptation to multitask. Use IM judiciously, which may mean inviting a reluctant participant to contribute or asking someone for additional data. End meetings on time, and make sure that you’ve kept the team focused and on track in achieving your intended outcomes.

6. Make work fun.

Give people permission to make everyday interactions fun. Playfulness and a sense of humor help people relax, bond and de-stress. Example: Start a virtual meeting off with some type of sharing that’s not directly related to the task at hand. For example, talk about where you’d most like to be right now, if not in this terrific meeting. Send a humorous sound or video file that everyone can enjoy at the start of the meeting. Make sure to strike the right balance between having a social conversation and allowing people to focus quickly on the work at hand.

7. Celebrate achievements, milestones and successes.

Most projects go through phases when the potential for burn-out or withdrawal is high. Show appreciation for contributions, achievements and sacrifices by making 1:1 contact with each team member. Send cards, either the paper or virtual kind, or personal emails. Or pick up the phone to say thanks. Get sponsors and other managers involved in showing appreciation, including acknowledgement via emails and in company publications. Plan team celebrations by sending gift certificates for coffee, pizza or dinner. And perhaps the best reward of all: Give people well-deserved time off when special milestones are met.

Like any other team that’s starting up, a virtual team will undoubtedly move through the phases of forming, norming, storming and performing. Your challenge is to accelerate the time it takes to cultivate a high-performing team by applying sound project team development principles in new ways that reflect the unique dynamics of a virtual team environment.

Posted by Nancy Settle-Murphy