Virtual teams: leading and working in agile times

Thomas Riemann-Seibert

Thomas Riemann-Seibert

July 3, 2017

Modern communication technology has made a trend possible that is growing from year to year: virtual teams. Already indispensable in many industries, this trend will gradually spread to all sectors. What is special about it, what needs to be considered and how can you be successful in and with a virtual team? Inspired by a Article by Beat Bühlmann, Director EMEA at Evernoteyou will find answers here.

Virtual teams and their special features

Virtual teams, around the clock, worldwide, collaboration, teamwork
Virtual teams make it possible to work around the clock and at distributed locations worldwide (Image: © Bounlow | stock.adobe.com)

When I read Beat Bühlmann's article, I had two thoughts: I should write an article about this myself and secondly, I remembered my time leading virtual teams myself. Some large SAP development projects that I managed were only possible with virtual teams. Some of my project team members were spread across Germany, some of the developers were in India and the colleagues who defined and created materials in SAP were in Brazil. And last but not least, the colleagues who were responsible for operations were based in Hungary.

As a result of these experiences, there are four key challenges for every leader of a virtual team. You will only be successful if you are aware of these points and act accordingly.

Time zones

At first glance, time zones do not pose a major challenge for virtual teams, but complications can arise, at least when planning project meetings. In the example above, we were faced with the situation that the employees in Brazil (GMT-2 to GMT-5) were just starting work when their colleagues in India (GMT+5:30) were already about to finish work. Even if this does not have a serious impact, it should still be taken into account when scheduling.

Culture and religion

If your virtual team is made up of employees from different cultural and religious backgrounds, this is certainly one of the biggest challenges you will face as the team leader. This is where you need to show particular sensitivity. It is best to find out about the customs of all the cultures and religions your employees come from before starting the project. Ideally, you should already have direct, personal contact with people from the respective religious and cultural backgrounds.

Languages

Different languages can certainly lead to misunderstandings. Even if all project members speak English (normally the project language for distributed teams), this can still happen, as English is unlikely to be the native language of most employees. Therefore, ask all your team members to speak as slowly and accented as possible. This tip may sound strange at first, but I assure you, your employees will thank you for it.

The company

In the example mentioned at the beginning, all the project team members came from one company. If this is also the case with your virtual team: good, then the corporate culture is the same and you don't need to worry about different ways of dealing with employees.

However, if your employees come from different companies, find out about the guidelines of the respective companies regarding all relevant topics that shape your dealings with employees, e.g. leadership, meetings, cultures, working hours - to name just a few examples.

In principle, the following applies to all four of these challenges for virtual teams: the better informed you are, the easier it will be for you to form a good and successful team with your employees.

Virtual teams: how you can be successful

Virtual teams, collaboration, teamwork, teamwork, trust, trust-based leadership, teams
Trust-based leadership is essential for the success of virtual teams.
(Image: © Drobot Dean | stock.adobe.com)

Being well informed is the essential basis for a leader in virtual teams. In addition, there are four other points that make the difference and therefore determine success or failure. These apply to every team, of course, but they play an even greater role for virtual teams.

Trust

Trust your employees and show them that. Place your trust in each individual team member. Trust in each other is one of the most important elements of a good and successful team. And as the leader of the team, you play a key role in determining whether or not there is trusting cooperation within the team.

Get to know each other personally

You should have spoken to every member of your team at least once in person. Not via Skype, telephone or similar, but actually face to face. Likewise, all your employees should have met in person at least once.

Of course, you can hop on a plane and visit the locations where your employees are based directly. However, this would only cover the one aspect of seeing all employees in person. It is better, although certainly more time-consuming and more expensive, to bring all project employees together in one place at the start of the project. Hold a kick-off meeting for the project lasting several days with all employees. Don't just think about all the technical issues, but also about leaving enough room for communication with each other. And make sure that you don't miss out on having fun together.

If planned and carried out well, such a meeting can create a solid basis of trust that strengthens virtual teams in particular. If your budget allows, repeat the meeting at major milestones (maximum twice a year).

Communication and processes

You can make this point a perfect topic for your kick-off: Work out rules for collaboration together with your employees. Discuss the topics on which you communicate with each other and how. Telephone, email, Skype meeting - determine which means of communication you use for which topic and in which order. The telephone or Skype are always the first choice when it comes to resolving a problem.

And define processes together with regard to activities that are a prerequisite for other team members to be able to continue working. Discuss how you will deal with documents that are relevant to some or all employees. It has been shown that there is no substitute for a central document repository to which everyone has access.

The points listed here do not claim to be exhaustive. Nevertheless, they provide you with a solid basis for mastering the various challenges you face as a project manager for virtual teams.

Conclusion

Leading and working in virtual teams places increased demands on employees and on you as a manager. It is no coincidence that, statistically speaking, more projects fail when virtual teams play a role. The better you inform yourself before the start of the project and the better you can commit your team to joint success, the better your project will head for success.

(Cover image: © vege | stock.adobe.com)

About the author

Thomas Riemann-Seibert

Thomas Riemann-Seibert

Thomas Riemann-Seibert is a long-standing executive and experienced project manager with a focus on motivation, communication and organization.

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