As opposed to the traditional brick and mortar business that relies on face-to-face connections with physical documents and physical currency or credit, a virtual business conducts business electronically. Many virtual professional services – such as administration, design and marketing – are becoming much more common and popular.
Let’s talk about what a successful virtual company looks like – specifically, the people, or team, that is the core of your virtual business.
Michael Watkins, contributor for the Harvard Business Review defines a virtual team as a group that:
- Has some core members who interact primarily through electronic means, and
- Is engaged in interdependent tasks — i.e. are truly teams and not just groups of independent workers.
If yours is a virtual team, it’s important to have both your core principles and processes set in place, along with a strong communication charter, to ensure success.
How to Build a Good Virtual Team
Though many challenges exist with the daily functioning of a virtual company, the most significant is hiring the proper people. With a virtual company, you need to do more than hire someone who is the right technical fit for the job. The candidate must possess the necessary characteristics of a good remote worker – such as the ability to work alone, to stay on task and manage time effectively. But, there’s even more. They must understand your company’s culture and be able to contribute to the synergy of that culture.
Some experts think Millennials will fit best into a virtual company because they are used to working and socializing in a virtual environment. But, considering our own experience, one societal group does not win out when determining a good fit. As mentioned in our blog Notable Character and Qualities of a Great Leader, skillsets alone cannot effectively overcome issues caused by a person without a good moral fiber, without strong character. You can’t build a strong structure on shifting sand.
Because virtual team members must function a good deal of their time autonomously, each must have a great sense of personal responsibility. And at the same time, each must be aware of how individual actions affect the entire group and the company as a whole.
Virtual Communications & Productivity
Oftentimes, virtual team members work from across the country and even around the world. It is crucial that lines of communication be kept open. To do so, you will need to create space and time for both established meetings as well as for that all-important watercooler time. Not only are relationships forged during informal, impromptu gatherings, but often, important ideas to direct or further company goals are hatched.
Another way to encourage strong relationships is to start each scheduled meeting with a check-in, a couple of minutes for each staffer to mentions what they’re doing – complete with successes and challenges they may be facing. Really, any virtual team-building exercise will interject a little more fun and personality into the meeting.
Because team members work from different time zones, some companies rotate meeting times to be fairer to everyone.
When interviewed, CEOs of a few virtual companies have recommended actual physical facetime periodically, but that is not feasible with many of the smaller virtual companies. In lieu of that, simply picking up the phone or IM with a platform such as Google Hangouts or even a quick email helps connect your staff. Video software is used by many companies for both the scheduled meetings and in a more casual setting for those informal chats.
Ever-increasing technology enables virtual companies to produce and communicate effortlessly and affordably. It seems new innovations appear on the horizon daily that enable virtual companies to work together seamlessly. Cloud-based team-management services are also evolving.
Take Sococo, for an example. It is a virtual office software that creates a picture of an office, allowing co-workers to see who’s available. You can actually knock on anyone’s door with a click as well as arrange and schedule meetings.
Virtual office software applications offer staff the sense of an office atmosphere, where they can get quick answers to urgent issues within a sense of community. This alleviates the sense of isolation all remote workers experience on occasion. And, it helps managers stay in touch with their team.
A successful virtual company is constantly searching for innovative resources and tools to streamline team processes. Efficient real-time document sharing is one such vital tool. No doubt, your company can find one that works for you out of the many free and cost-effective applications currently available, such as: EtherPad, Google Docs, Zoho, Microsoft Office Live, and ThinkFree. Combining shared workspaces with social networking features also help team members to feel more connected.
More on Principles, Processes and Communication
As previously mentioned, it’s important to clarify tasks and processes. Simplify the tasks and ensure clarity about the processes, with specifics about who does what. In fact, some companies assign tasks to sub-groups of two to three team members. Other companies actually assign team leaders (and mentors) – which fosters even more engagement. Teams also assure accountability and help build deeper relationships.
By defining deliverables and tracking commitments, you’re providing the “push” to keep the focus and productivity impetus going. The above-mentioned shared leadership can provide the crucial “pull.”
It’s important to regularly evaluate to identify necessary process adjustments and subsequent training needs. It can be quite a challenge to observe engagement and productivity in a virtual environment. Managers must walk a fine line between appropriate tracking and micro-management – which can feel demeaning to staff. A useful tool is often a deliverables dashboard, which is visible to all team members involved in a project.
The communications charter will help the team be clear and disciplined regarding communications of normal meeting behavior, as well as guidelines for use in specific situations – such as when to use IM, email, telephone or a shared document. You can even extend this into an agreed-upon shared language – if your team is one that crosses cultures. It will behoove you to explicitly negotiate shared interpretation agreements for important words and phrases. We have learned on occasion that even if people from different cultures think they understand one another, this might not always be the case.
A fundamental key to making a success of any virtual environment is regular one-on-one performance management and coaching. Check performance status and provide much-needed feedback. More importantly, keep your team connected to the overall vision and their contribution to making it happen.
The Last Word
A virtual work environment can be of great value to both workers and companies. From the company perspective, it allows expertise to be the driver in hiring instead of physical proximity, and it saves on overhead. For the workers, the elimination of the commute, the folding of work more seamlessly into our daily lives, the ability to focus on the work more than the job are all winning reasons for this choice. But there is a price that cannot be ignored in the need for stronger processes, better communication, a greater focus on creating space informal socializing, and populating the team with members that have great character and extraordinarily strong self-organization and personal self-management. Awareness of the pitfalls and consciously addressing the downsides are how to gain all the advantages while minimizing the negatives to be a strong player in the amazing adventure of ‘the virtual work environment.’ Good luck!