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That videoconferencing, email and chat have made it possible to work with anyone anywhere has opened up all sorts of fantastic opportunities. An entrepreneur in California, for example, can team up with a programmer in India, as well as a designer in England and a specialist in Spain to create a unique product in which they all have a share.
And they could work together for years without ever buying a plane ticket to fly halfway around the world, stay in a hotel and meet in person.
But working as a virtual team has its challenges. Bringing people from different places together is relatively easy; keeping them together is not. These are some of the most important things that can turn a virtual team into a real disaster.
1. Irregular Contact
Teamwork is always about communication but when the team is working in the same building, that communication comes naturally. Without that contact, team members quickly drift apart and soon start thinking as individuals instead of as vital elements of a group effort.
When that happens, it’s not long before everyone is working towards different goals — which means that no goals are reached at all.
The best solution is to fix a time to “meet” regularly. That could be a weekly phone chat or a morning videoconference, but it should be rigid. Even if there’s nothing new to discuss, just coming together at a set time to provide updates and swap ideas can stop the team falling apart.
2. Lack of Leadership
Equality might work in communes but when you’re building a project, you need a project leader, someone who’s prepared to take charge and make sure that everything works smoothly.
That will require effort. It means checking up on what each team member has been doing, solving problems before they slow the entire group down and ensuring that everyone knows what everyone else is up to. The leader will also need to set the times for the team to meet and chase up team members who say they can’t make it.
The team might be scattered in different places, but everyone should know where the center is.
3. Lack of Responsibility
While one team member will have overall responsibility, each team member should also feel that they have responsibility over their own area. That’s always important when delegating but it’s particularly important with a scattered team when the leader isn’t directly on hand to answer every question and constantly check progress.
Part of that comes from smart leadership — by delegating just enough responsibility to give each team member freedom but not enough that they wander off and get lost. But it also comes from clever hiring. Usually when you’re looking to build a team, it pays to find people who are good at working together.
When you’re looking to build a virtual team, you have to find people who are good at working alone too.
4. Sudden Disappearances
But not too alone. The biggest responsibility that every team member has is to the rest of the team. If a team member has a tendency to forget that, it’s always going to come out during virtual teamwork.
It’s just too easy to ignore the rest of the team if you never actually have to see them.
When emails go unanswered, phone calls are never returned and deadlines are missed without even so much as an excuse, it’s probably best to start looking for a replacement rather than waste time trying to get that team member to stay in the club.
5. Lack of Member Information
One of the reasons that virtual teams are more vulnerable than real teams is that the team members don’t really know each other. That makes the social penalties for letting down other team members less severe and it also reduces the social rewards that come from impressing people you respect.
A solution is to not only make sure that everyone is aware of what each other is doing for the project but also enable them to see what each team member has done in the past. Understanding that the project’s programmer, for example, was responsible for building a tool that the designer uses is more likely to motivate that designer to keep working well. The more pride the team members feel in the team, the more they’ll work to keep the team successful.
And you don’t need to strain yourself to make this happen. The very first “meeting” between the team members could start with an introduction and everyone could then exchange Facebook addresses. Or you could put up a website on which everyone places a profile — as well as the work they’re collaborating on.
It would be great to be able to say that virtual teamwork is the perfect answer to long distances, that all of the communication tools now available mean that location doesn’t matter — only skills do. But that isn’t quite the case. While virtual teams do work, they also need special attention to keep them working — and to prevent them from dying.
[tags] virtual teams [/tags]