The Top 6 Priorities for Managing Virtual Teams

Nearly 80 percent of employees surveyed for a recent Harvard Business Review article reported working remotely as part of a virtual team, a number that has skyrocketed in the face of recent technological advances. The modern geographically dispersed team (GDT) model allows companies to find the best talent, offer the job flexibility they're seeking, and leverage diversity and geographic advantages while maintaining real-time communications with team members.

Virtual teams bring together employees whose talents complement those of the other team members. Each person on a team is committed to independent performance goals that work within the constructs of the group toward a common purpose. It's the team manager who is responsible for keeping these high-level individuals focused on success as a team.

There are a few important points managers must prioritize to keep their employees engaged and productivity high.

1. Standardize group processes
Reporting structures and acceptable norms for interaction among team members should not be left to question. Managers have an opportunity early in virtual team building efforts to establish some expectations within the project charter or another key foundational document. Unknown processes lead to insecurity, which can affect trust and team dynamics. Set the tone for the team from day one.

2. Set communication expectations to minimize delays
Working across time zones requires that we restructure—and clearly define—what the team needs from each member to minimize communication delays. Set some ground rules from the beginning that require responses of 24 to 48 hours, and schedule regular conference calls mindful of time-zone challenges.

3. Get Regular Face Time
Teams need trust, and need to put a face to a name in order to build that trust. Video conferencing is a must, and not just for business reasons. The water-cooler social aspect of workplace interaction is lost to a virtual team without some regular face-to-face interaction.

4. Keep the project top-of-mind
Communication within a virtual team should be nearly constant. As different facets of the project progress, every team member should be able to access that information through an online project management portal. This helps everyone see the big picture, how they fit into it, and how well the team is working toward the goal. That's a feedback loop that encourages high levels of individual performance, which translates into a top-performing team.

5. Keep team calendars visible
Use Google Calendar or similar software to store team members' calendars where other team members can see them. Ask members to update their calendars with any travel days or holidays, regular meetings and any other absences so the team stays in contact. 

6. Recognize a job well done
A simple “thank you” or “great job” (verbally or via group e-mail) coming from a manager can mean so much to any team, but is especially significant to a virtual team member who also desires acceptance and approval from the group. If a player on your team exceeds your expectations, reward them accordingly through more formal channels, such as an award or bonus.

Managing a geographically dispersed team requires a manager to exercise forethought and discipline. If you are going to compete in a global economy, foster creativity and a high level of efficiency within virtual teams, you have to be thoughtful and disciplined about your approach to leading and managing them.

More heads thinking about something tends to produce more creative solutions, but you have to have those heads talking to each other enough to foster synergy. With GDTs, as with any team, that synergy is built by great managers.