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Virtual teams

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How to ensure that teams who work remotely still operate effectively.

A feature of many voluntary organisations and charities is that people who are geographically dispersed need to work together as a team. This presents particular challenges. Here we explore how these might be managed.

Virtual teams might include field staff in remote regions, volunteers on external placements, trustees spread over a wide geographical area, or staff working from home. 

Research shows that the chances of things going wrong are greater in virtual teams. Isolation and lack of social contact can be particularly difficult. There may be a lack of everyday practical support from the ‘parent’ organisation and many of the features of an effective team are difficult to achieve without meeting face-to-face. The team is linked through communications which need particular attention.

Principles for developing virtual teamwork

Many processes that happen automatically and informally in face to face teams have to be consciously managed in virtual teams. 

Clearly defined aims and objectives

It is even more important for virtual teams to have clearly defined aims and objectives so team members are united on what needs to be done and when. Clarity of goals cannot be achieved through informal discussion as with a face to face team. 

Confirmation of understanding also needs to be consciously addressed and conclusions put in writing. As well as clarifying the direction of overall effort, this brings team cohesion. How things are done to achieve objectives may vary depending on different local circumstances.

Clear roles within the team

Clear roles are necessary for individuals to avoid duplication and confusion. Team members need to be very clear about the separate tasks they are reponsible for.

Leadership and authority within the team

Leadership and authority needs to be clarified. Who takes on leadership for a project or the different stages of a project? Who has the authority to assign work?

Clear processes for team operations

Explict transparent processes for decision-making, work planning and other procedures need to be made. How will decisions be taken? How will team members update each other?

Clarify team expectations

It’s important to clarify expectations about ways of working especially when local custom might vary across different countries.  There may need to be agreement on working hours a day or week, when its acceptable to phone or arrange teleconferencing (accounting for time differences).

A sense of identity as a team

Having a sense of identity as a team generates feelings of belonging and makes success more likely. It’s been shown that virtual teams who meet together face to face, even if only once, are more likely to achieve this.

If possible have a team ‘launch’ giving time for people to get to know each other personally. Periodic face to face meetings also reinforce team bonding. Where this is not possible try video conferencing. Good communication is absolutely vital to the virtual team. Today’s technologies provide an impressive array of communications. How can these be an aid to effective communication and not a barrier?  This is explored in more detail below.

Tips for good ‘remote’ communication

  • Agree with the team best ways to communicate. Develop protocols for regular communication and also work out ways for communicating spontaneously. Voice media (phone, voicemail, teleconferencing) is best for urgent messages, collaboration and conversation. The human voice also builds relationships in a way that written communications does not. Written media works better for detail, complex issues, and where a permanent record is needed.
  • Isolation can be a problem especially for people spending a lot of time alone. Consider how the team can have social contact through phone calls, and possibly trips to the local office.  Team members ‘pairing’ or buddying can be a helpful way of offering and getting support. Develop a team norm of asking for support when it’s needed and checking on how each other are getting along.
  • Make sure technology works well and that people are trained to use it. Consider a team website and live meeting technology such as telephone, video and web conferencing.Telephone and video conferences need an agenda and good facilitation to make sure everyone gets involved.
  • The intention behind contact needs to be made clear. Are you giving information, seeking feedback or asking for a decision?
  • Start conversations with how the person or team is before moving on to specific issues. Check for understanding.
  • Agree acceptable response times, for example, for emails, comments on decisions.
  • Encourage people to share their achievements and any problems they are having.

Consider how you will share knowledge as a team and share achievements with the wider organisation

Further reading

Page last edited Jun 23, 2017

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