The VPN is up. Your telecommuters can and often do log on anytime from anywhere. Yet technology may not be enough to keep your teleworking staff members on target. "Out of sight" can become "out of mind" and then "out of the loop" for both those working from home and their managers. Keeping a virtual team productive requires management and communication practices that differ from face-to-face management.
Start with the best
Go back to basics for virtual team success, says Jeff Wenger, vice president and CTO of Tax Technologies. "Hire people that are senior in their field, self-motivated, and somebody you can trust. In some cases, we even have telecommuting interns; however, the work assignments are commensurate with experience," Wenger says.
Wenger notes that telecommuting is not for everyone -- and managers need to understand this. "Some personnel lack the self-motivation to maintain schedule and focus [working from home]. Recognise this early and move to Plan B," the CTO says.
Develop new practices
Once the right telecommuting talent is on board, managers need to develop new techniques to ensure work and team coordination, an element critical to success. "[Managers] need a disciplined, preferably visual, learning strategy for getting [a virtual team] on the same page and headed in the same direction," says Marilyn Darling, principal at Signet Consulting Group.
Darling also says managers need "a strategy for testing [telecommuters'] results and adjusting their course as they go. [Managers] need to start with standards they can track -- a grounded basis for learning and performance improvement. Then patterns of best practices will start to emerge over time."
For Tax Technologies' Wenger, a virtual team's "best practice" depends on setting definite expectations. "Manage by deliverables. One can always question effort, but contributions are concrete."
Virtually not there
Setting and communicating deliverables can be hampered by the virtual team environment, especially if those goals are discussed only during telephone meetings attended only by "barely there" telecommuting staff.
"With virtual meetings, there is not even the need to pretend to pay attention," says Charles Parry, a principal at Signet. "Participants have a mute button and can read their e-mail to pass the time. So even if the meeting results in an agreement to take a certain course of action, some people who were 'in the room' may not have actually participated in, or even paid attention to, the decision. This is the 'out of sight, out of mind' disease. In a virtual context, it's deadly to the success of the meetings," Parry says.
Virtual team meeting outcomes, including specific assignments and deadlines, should be clarified in meeting minutes and sent out via e-mail shortly after the meeting, many experts say.
In consulting at companies about enacting virtual team best practices, Darling and Parry have developed a mapping process to guide the flow and control of meetings, decisions, and actions. "The maps, as we call them, define the starting point, the proposed route, the milestones, goals, and feedback process. Team members can line up their individual actions with the team's goals, identify possible obstacles, and brainstorm potential course corrections. It serves to keep everyone on the same 'sheet of music,' " Darling says.
Although there is consensus that virtual teams are here to stay, there is no guarantee that corporations will get all the potential benefits of the virtual team by using standard management techniques. Darling suggests a carefully thought-out management approach that includes constant review.
Clarify the precise question or problem the virtual team will address, its objective.
Develop agreement on a cycle of experimentation that includes solutions to potential problems.
Clarify a theory of success, what team members believe to be the cause-and-effect relationship that will result in success: If we do X, then we will accomplish Y.
Test the theory of success by assigning specific responsibilities for specific actions and objectives.
Review results regularly according to an agreed-on schedule and goals.
Repeat the cycle until team members gain confidence in the success hypothesis -- which might turn out to be the team's best practice -- or until a better one emerges to take its place.
"There has to be an acknowledgment of the unique structure of virtual teams and a clear understanding of the danger of the 'out of sight, out of mind' disease," Darling says. "These factors require a structure and process that will engage all of the team members and provide a road map that will help the team course-correct en route to its goals. Otherwise, all you have is a lot of sophisticated technology and unproductive meetings happening on a global basis."