Developing and managing a virtual team

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Laura Kelly, International Marketing Manager of Thomson NETg looks at the skills required to manage a virtual team.

Whether it is to collaborate on a global business strategy, technology or product roll-out, most managers will, at some stage need to lead a virtual project team encompassing parties from around the world.

Although the skill set needed to manage this type of unique team requires many of the same general management and leadership abilities, the nature of a virtual team means that managers will require superior levels of competency in areas including communication, problem solving, motivating the team and project management.

Solid Information Technology skills may also be required by virtual team managers; especially where new technologies including web conferencing are used.

As an HR professional, you must ensure that your organisation’s senior managers have these skills. Training will need to centre upon ensuring skills are in place to bring together and manage a team spread across geographic distances, time zones, cultures and languages.

Recruiting the right team is also essential. Virtual team players need to demonstrate independence as well as the ability to work as a team. Projects of this nature are often carried out without direct supervision. Self motivation is therefore an important criteria.

The tips below will help you to identify the skills needed by managers to lead a virtual team.

By taking a proactive role, HR managers can lay the foundations for the team’s success.

How to develop and manage a virtual team

1. Identify ‘ideal’ virtual team members
The people who work best in virtual team environments typically share the following characteristics: they need limited supervision and feedback, less social interaction, have good organisational and time management skills, are self-motivated, results focused, and can concentrate if away from a worksite. These attributes help to reduce team conflict making the team easier to manage and motivate.

2. Develop a framework
It’s important that managers set clear guidelines to ensure they can track and manage the progress of the project as well as making certain that roles and responsibilities are understood by everyone involved.

3. Build trust through communication
Working virtually can produce problems. Lack of face to face meetings means that rapport and trust can be slow to develop. Ideally, virtual team managers should aim to bring everyone together for the first team meeting and introduce regular opportunities for everyone to communicate and interact. Emails can often be interpreted in many different ways so ideally teams should meet face to face whenever possible.

4. Using technology
While email lists, chat rooms and video conferencing are useful tools to aid communication, sometimes new technology can be a hindrance. Slow network connections, poor architecture, and lack of collaborative software can slow or even halt communication. New technology should be seen as a way to enable collaboration over large distances, rather than providing a solution to problems.

5. The virtual team manager
HR professionals should ensure that the virtual team manager has excellent communications skills and follows a simple set of guidelines to ensure the team’s success.

These should include introducing members to key contacts, building systems for regular communication, and intermediating with those outside the team. Virtual team managers must also have the skills to play the role of leader, results driver, facilitator, problem solver, business analyst, coach and role model.

Although, from an HR point of view, managing virtual teams involves similar skills to managing traditional teams, virtual team managers should also be aware that they will not have the same level of control over the project and that they will have to allow team members to work autonomously. It is essential that virtual team managers set a solid communications framework in place and that team members are selected for their ability to work alone while maintaining the goals of the team.

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