Dispersed teams certainly have their benefits. However, conflicting time zones and priorities as well as language barriers may present new and different challenges.
Those challenges, in turn, demand answers to questions like, How effective are you at delegating? And: Are you actually creating more confusion than clarity? Here are four project-management secrets for keeping your virtual team running like the well-oiled machine it should be.
1. Avoid email.
It’s 7:02 a.m. on a Saturday morning. You’ve just finished your second cup of coffee, when a game-changing idea pops into your head. You feel tempted to send an email to your marketing consultant, but you know his inbox is already swamped with dozens of your other "great ideas." How can you ensure this one will actually get traction?
Email is an ineffective means to delegate or collaborate with your team. Each email you send depends upon the receiving party’s ability to read, comprehend and take action. In addition, unless you have a stellar memory or spend time regularly scanning your “sent” folder, there’s a high likelihood that you will forget to follow up.
Instead of sending email, then, leverage the power of project-management systems. For work that requires immediate action with defined due dates, assign tasks via Asana or Basecamp. New ideas can also be stored neatly on a Trello board. Be sure to set recurring meetings for your team to ensure accountability.
Use those meetings, too, to review the idea backlog and discuss completed work. By doing these things, you’ll feel less stressed; and your team’s inboxes will be less chaotic.
2. Set recurring tasks.
Take out a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle. On the left side, write the word “recurring,” and on the right side, put “not recurring.” Now, stop and think about all the work your team does on a regular basis. Are these tasks recurring or not? You may be surprised to see the vast number of items in the "recurring" column.
For each one of those tasks, identify who is responsible for each one and how often it repeats. Perhaps your bookkeeping assistant enters data into Quickbooks each Wednesday afternoon. Or maybe your content writer loads blog drafts into WordPress on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.
Whatever the task and frequency, there are several free tools that can automate recurring tasks. Asana is especially helpful, as you can use it to define custom recurrence patterns. This flexibility accommodates virtually every work schedule imaginable.
3. Employ group chats.
If you rely on offshore workers or freelancers, you likely experience scheduling headaches. Perhaps it’s time to scale back the number of conference calls and give group chats a try.
Most virtual companies are already using Skype for voice or video calls. Using the chat (typed text) feature to host a group conversation is equally easy -- and potentially as rewarding. To get started, click “New Conversation” and begin adding your participants. Once your team has been added, you can type your first message to the group. If people are offline, they will see the message the next time they log on.
Group chats can be very useful for fostering almost-real-time collaboration without the hassle of scheduling real meetings. The expectation is that each group member will check Skype daily and stay apprised of any changes within the thread. Many freelancers check Skype before they check email, so pinging the group can be a highly effective way to get work done.
4. Build clear work instructions.
As demand increases, you may find yourself needing to add more team members. To standardize the work being done, you'd be wise to develop a set of work instructions.
Big companies that follow ISO 9001 standards are very diligent at documenting their processes. Why shouldn’t you? Granted, you don’t need to go overboard and spend hours writing complex algorithms or booklets. Just start by creating some shared Google docs that are categorized by department, function and responsibilities. List out the steps to complete the work and assure quality.
Then, once the work instructions are completed, share the links with the appropriate team members and attach them to the appropriate recurring task(s). That way, when workers view their daily work plans, they’ll see a targeted list of tasks, each of which contains detailed instructions for completion.
Increase the ROI of your virtual team.
For most small businesses, the biggest operating expense is labor. By continually optimizing your delegation and project-management processes, you'll help ensure a higher ROI for your company and simultaneously increase engagement with your staff.
Related: Building an All-Star Virtual Team