Finding your entire team in the same office is a rare occurrence these days. Even small teams may be dispersed across town, working out of their homes or across the world in different time zones. Modern communication tools, including WebEx, Skype and video conferencing are a good start, but virtual teams remain a productivity nightmare for many companies.
I find that well-designed teams work very effectively this way, despite the challenges. As with all elements of business, finding the right people is the first step. In addition to bringing together the right set of skills, experiences and mindsets, it is important that every team member and their leader practices and believes in the following principles:
1. Showing respect for other team members is paramount.
To have real buy-in to common goals, all team members must respect and appreciate the skills and contributions of others. Virtual teams cannot survive with self-centered and abrasive members or loners who won’t share the load or risk. This requires a strong leader, and begins with good hiring.
2. A willingness to share responsibility for success.
All employees must accept their dependency on each other for results, and take personal responsibility for team actions. This means taking an interest in the work performed by all team members and willingly accepting even mundane tasks to assure the success of the project.
3. Leaders foster a culture of collaboration and trust.
Effective and frequent communication to all team members is the key, with a focus on strengths and desired behaviors, rather than personalities and faults. Team leaders and startup founders must be visibly and mentally present to be perceived as trustworthy and part of the team.
4. Members practice regular communication with each other.
Geographically dispersed teams won’t work if some members make themselves hard to find or consistently refuse to communicate. As a good practice, frequency standards and modes of communication must be set early, and all employees held accountable for making it happen.
5. Necessary tools are provided and supported for collaboration.
These tools may range from secure phone lines to compatible messaging software for everyone. Virtual teams need a tool-acquisition process, training program and support contact for all technology provided. Tool availability is the responsibility of the startup, not the individual.
6. Conflict resolution procedures are well-defined.
Even the best of teams have conflicts, but these can arise more quickly in remote teams from simple oversights and poor communication. Virtual team leaders must be especially proactive in following up and resolution, before productivity and trust are lost.
7. Clear objectives and metrics are established early.
These must include time constraints and budgetary limitations to be tracked by the team, as well as the leader. Everyone in an office environment may see and hear the objectives in other contexts, but team members working from home, or in another country, have less insight.
8. High morale and a positive attitude drive team productivity.
Team members who are quick to assign blame or find fault with the project will jeopardize the productivity of the entire team, and must be quickly removed. Maintaining positive morale requires an extra dedication to continuous relationship-building, recognition and compensation.
For truly global virtual teams, cross-cultural training may be required where members are separated not only by time zones and distance, but also by language and environmental and political differences. These differences add complexity to group dynamics, but also often add new value through new perspectives on creativity and productivity.
With the Internet, every startup today has global reach and visibility. Just think of your remote team members as closer to the customer, rather than farther from the team. Business success is all about value creation. Your value is in your teams, as well as your solution. Make every one count.