5 Uncommon Tips for Managing Your Virtual Team

by Hassan Osman, April 4, 2013

Typical “how-to” advice on managing virtual teams goes something like this:

Have clear objectives. Use video. Communicate efficiently. Use the right technology.

All of that is great advice (and should certainly be followed), but you might want to know a little bit more than your traditional pointers about how to effectively manage your team.

Here are five uncommon tips that will help you out:

  1. Set deadlines for everything.

    Parkinson’s law states that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. In other words, if you give someone ten days to complete a task, then it will take them ten days to complete it. If you give them one day, then it’ll take them one. Interpreted a different way, this means that a task that doesn’t have a deadline assigned to it will never get done. So to avoid this law from kicking in, set deadlines on everything. Even if you don’t think you need a deadline, you can still set one anyway (no one’s going to know it’s only personal).

  2. Assign tasks to individuals, not groups.

    Here’s a realistic scenario: if you get a heart attack while walking around in a crowded place, chances are no one’s going to help you out. However, if only a single person is standing next to you when you collapse, you’ll have a much higher chance of getting assistance. The reason behind this counter-intuitive phenomenon is called the “Bystander Effect,” and it is why responsibility gets diffused in groups. The Bystander Effect occurs frequently in virtual teams,so if you assign a task to a group of people, there’s a good possibility no one is going to pick it up (the well-known adage here is that “everyone’s responsibility is no one’s responsibility”). To avoid this issue, always assign tasks to specific individuals.

  3. Overcommunicate.

    A huge drawback of virtual teams is that team members tend to get easily isolated in their separate silos. This is not so common in co-located teams because individuals bump into each other on a daily basis. To compensate for the lack of frequent get-togethers, you should overcommunicate with your team by constantly interacting with them – even if you don’t really need to. This means calling them, emailing them or instant messaging them at least once every day or two. By doing so, you’ll ensure that you maintain a sense of team cohesion and flow.

  4. Get Personal. 

    One of the fastest ways to build trust with your team is to get to know them personally. In fact, this is why some companies encourage office workers to decorate their cubicles with their own personal interests (such as pictures of their families or artifacts from their hobbies). Those little items end up starting conversations about common interests among colleagues, and that eventually leads to a more unified team environment. This is a lot harder to mimic in virtual teams, so you have to put in the extra effort to know more about your team members’ personal lives. One way to do so is to schedule separate one-on-one calls with your team to connect with them at an informal level.
     
  5. Assume Nothing. 

    Communication among virtual teams is challenging because you don’t have the benefit of reading facial expressions, body language or other social cues. This results in an increase in the degree of ambiguity and confusion during collaboration. Consequently, you should be very specific with your requests and assume nothing about the person’s knowledge on the receiving end. You should be 100% clear about your expectations and not leave any requests open to interpretation. So instead of saying “I need to have a summary update by next week,” you should say “I need to have a 500 to 600 word summary update in PDF format by Thursday, July 16 at 1:00pm Eastern Standard Time.”

Are there any other techniques that you use to collaborate with your virtual team? Let me know in the comments below!

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Hassan Osman is a Senior Program manager at Cisco Systems where he leads virtual teams on delivering multi-million dollar projects while working from his home office in Boston. Check out his free training videos about the 3 Best Practices for Effectively Communicating with Virtual Teams on his blog. You can also follow him on twitter @HassanO. Views are his own.

 
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Arie Baan , Thu 04.04.2013
This is good, workable advice, Hassan, thanks for sharing!

I have just curated this post to my info stream on the topic of virtual teamworking on Scoop.It ( http://www.scoop.it/t/virtual-teamworking )
 
Hassan Osman , Sun 07.04.2013
Thanks Arie - glad you enjoyed the article and thank you for sharing the post on your info stream.