How Your Virtual Team Can “Crush It”
I’ve been working remotely with clients in faraway places for going on four years. Just lately I’ve been in discussions with a large nonprofit org about a work opportunity, and am mulling over what I’ve learned about working with and managing geographically decentralized teams. Hunting around for how others have put together best-practices guidelines, I found this deck from Kyra Cavanaugh, “fearless leader” of Chicagoland consultancy LifeMeetsWork — it’s really good, and contains not a word I haven’t found to be true in my experience:
Any problems I’ve had in teleworking — as both manager and manage-ee — have boiled down to process/systems failure, in establishing expectations, measuring performance, and inadequate communication. (Gee, that sounds pretty much like a list of what can go wrong in an onsite team….) Kyra puts great emphasis on how important it is to be deliberate about establishing clear protocol in all these areas:
- create a team operating agreement (I like the idea of borrowing some tricks from scrum and scrum-ban project-management frameworks, from the agile development world. scrum guidelines) and review/revise regularly;
- commit to setting goals and tracking performance (daily progress check-ins are, in my experience, often really helpful);
- adopt communications routines that establish a new sense of place — a “team culture,” shared online, so that all team members, whether on-site or off-, feel truly connected. Also, routines that will uncover and address frustrations — she includes a quote I love, “Don’t spend more than 30 seconds being angry without telling someone.”
- pick a handful of web-based tools — project management, bugtracker, conferencing, whiteboard, “watercooler” (she mentions CampFire; I like Yammer a lot); wiki (for KM/documentation of process), etc. — and get the entirety of the team’s workflow onto these systems, without fail.
Lots more good stuff in her presentation. And what comes across is something I can only underscore (in heavy Sharpie, about three times): the only real difference between a smooth-running, kick-ass virtual team and a smooth-running, kick-ass on-site team is that, with the former, setting up and adhering to such principles and protocols has extra urgency. Whatever energy it takes to get the team off to a good start, get buy-in from every team member, and arrive at a point where you’ve got a close-knit group of people that trust one another and bear each other up, it’s worth it — because without that bond among the team, things can go south really fast and can be harder to fix than when team members are literally face-to-face with each other every day.
At the peak of his basketball stardom at Princeton, Bill Bradley was asked how he did the things he did — the eyes-in-the-back-of-his-head passes to teammates, the miracle shots — and he answered “You develop a sense of where you are.” You want each member of a virtual team to feel this way, too — set the bar there and do what you can to get there fast if you want a happy, engaged, productive virtual team.