Geographically-fragmented teams are pretty much the norm today, so making virtual teams more effective should be on most Enterprise IT agendas.
Although it's difficult to simulate a brainstorm around a flipchart, a chat by the printer or the wild abandon of an after-work happy hour, there are ways to ensure your team stays engaged, motivated and effective. Let's look into how standard working practices can be adapted to ensure communication and productivity aren't adversely affected.
Communication, communication, communication
It's often underestimated just how much people communicate simply because they can't avoid each other. Compensating for this where team members are virtual is absolutely vital. Thankfully, tools are available to do just that. IM, virtual meeting rooms, project management software and video conferencing are key ways to replace face-to-face communication.
Work and non-work
As well as planning and managing work streams online, it's important to ensure some form of informal dialogue also remains. So consider keeping a non-work communication channel open at all times.
The right kind of communication
Just which form(s) of communication work best for your team should be given some careful consideration. Email has a place but but chat applications like Skype, Google Chat, Slack and Hipchat add a level of immediacy and reach. This tends to be most powerful when it comes to knowledge sharing, especially when problem-solving across a team.
Sometimes there's no substitute for hearing a voice on the phone or reading body language via video. A combination of channels is likely to be required to meet your needs.
Document editing and collaboration
Google Drive's office suite supports not only document sharing but also concurrent editing of these documents. Google Drive, Dropbox and other cloud-based file-hosting services also offer a document storage and circulation. Confluence 6 promises the introduction of concurrent editing and should be a step-change in how Confluence supports collaboration.
Helping the team use the technology
How these channels are used for optimum benefit also needs to be defined. Help your teams by agreeing and communicating around the toolset. Be sure to allow the toolset to evolve with new technology being evaluated.
For example, would a screen capture tool such as Jing help you communicate visually using screenshot mark-ups? Is a YouTube channel worth maintaining for video explanations and/or to define company practices and protocol? What's off-limits within the company chat room: when does interesting and inclusive become distracting and even offensive?
Is my team productive?
Virtual teams are, obviously, more difficult to observe. Monitoring productivity can be one of the biggest challenges for organisations have when it comes to virtual working. It also tends to highlight whether team goals are clearly defined, measurable and understood.
Beyond the implementation of collaboration tools and project management software, specify how your organisation carries out its work. Lay out clear expectations for projects progression in terms of design, building, testing, deployment and review. These parameters need to be made clear before productivity can be measured against them.
Flexible hours, firm commitments
Working remotely often from home affords flexibility in working hours. So mandating a 9-to-5 day is unlikely to be a popular or even necessary policy with virtual workers, particularly if they're located in different time zones. However, that needs to be balanced against ensuring there is common time when team members can communicate. That means imposing some rules and making sure that they're observed so the team is able to discuss key issues rather than picking up messages when they clock in.
Employee output measurements should be put in place so both parties are clear on what productive looks like. Initial short-term expectations will help embed measurement as standard practice. Individuals working hours (or achievement targets for the more disciplined) should be agreed where possible. Big Brother tools to monitor employee hours active, websites visited, applications used and breaks taken are available but beware of both the potential impact on staff morale and time needed to monitor.
Look for feedback and listen to the team
Finally, seek feedback. Set reviews to discuss performance, expectations, feelings of value and engagement and listen to team members suggestions to improve individual and team set-ups.
Of course, although it is possible for virtual teams to thrive without continual face-to-face contact, every opportunity should be taken to meet in person where possible. Meeting as a team every few months should be diarised to truly bridge the geographical gap.