Josh Green writes for www.ework.com – a Ms.Money partner.
By now everyone is familiar with the concept of a “virtual corporation.” These mythical creatures, like the Pegasus, are supposed to be fleet of foot, far outpacing their rivals in the physical world by employing the best talent at remote sites around the world. And like the Pegasus, we’ve only seen it in books.
But even if these companies haven’t yet lived up to the hype, even traditional companies are incorporating virtual elements into their corporate structures. Virtual teams – groups of employees working on the same project or in the same division, but dispersed over a wide geographic area – are becoming all the rage. There are a number of advantages a virtual team offers, including the ability to stock a team with better and more appropriate talent, more efficient workflow, and less overhead expense.
But there is a down side, too, especially for managers of these virtual teams. How should a project manager or executive deal with workers that aren’t readily available by walking down the hall? The dilemma goes beyond using technology to overcome communication hurdles – finding the right management style for a virtual team is probably the most difficult obstacle most managers face.
Virtual vessels. Virtual world veterans like Veronica Holcomb, CEO of VJ Holcomb Associates and an executive counselor with 20 years experience, say that many virtual management techniques mirror “real-world” management, but require a lot more vigilance. For instance, Holcomb says, you must be certain that the remote worker does not feel isolated. That means regularly checking in at least once a day, and depending on the person it could mean a lot more handholding via telephone or e-mail.
Another factor to be aware of is the employee’s workspace. “(Virtual workers) need to have an appropriate physical space in which to work,” says Holcomb, a home office worker herself. “It’s not in your bedroom and not in your kitchen – I mean, I can’t imagine waking up to VJ Holcomb Associates every morning!”
See the whites of their eyes. Of course, an important component to managing an effective virtual team is face time. Without personal contact in some form, remote workers may see each other more as satellites revolving around the same sun rather than colleagues in the same virtual space. Depending on the degree of interaction, Holcomb says that virtual workers should meet “at least once or twice a year,” with a required weekly conference call, preferably using a bridge line.
Mark Chussil, president of consulting firm Advanced Competitive Strategies (ACS) in Portland, Ore., makes it a rule that all his employees meet four times a year at the company’s headquarters. ACS has nine employees spread out to locations like Philadelphia, Seattle, and Portland, Maine. Unlike most companies, it has operated “virtually” since it started in 1986.
Chussil says that the key to getting a virtual company to run smoothly is spending a little more time on the hiring process. “We’ve hired very bright people who are independent self-starters and self-motivators – that’s critical. If the staff of the company needs to be watched all the time, that’s probably not a company you want to take virtual.”
Personality matters. Mike Steinbaum, VP of Product Development for Revbox.com, managed a virtual team for an online community in his previous job. Saying that a virtual team is “good for employees, but not for managers,” Steinbaum thinks that employees on the tech side – programmers or IT staffers – are probably better suited for virtual projects because their job roles are often clearly defined and independent of anyone else on the team.
Holcomb agrees that personality and job role can really have an impact on a virtual team. Her last virtual assistant needed more supervision than she could give her. “I couldn’t give her a supervision, so a lot of things fell through the cracks,” Holcomb explained. “There are certain personalities that just don’t work well in a virtual situation.” Steinbaum adds that age may be a factor as well – younger employees who grew up with tools like e-mail are less likely to miss crucial nuance in an e-mail.
Team building So once you have the proper management process in place, how do you motivate remote workers and make them feel part of a team?
“It’s not a whole lot different on what you’d do face-to-face,” says Holcomb. “You must articulate a vision of what the company is doing and keep telling that story. I don’t see a lot of good leadership out there, but where I do see it, it’s because all the employees understand what the mission is.”
Chussil says that if you find the right cultural fit in an employee, the motivation will follow. “In a virtual company, you can’t MAKE anybody work. That means hiring the right person is very important.” If one of Chussil’s employees discovers afterward they need more social contact to work effectively, arrangements are made for more personal meetings. Finding a social surrogate, Steinbaum says, is crucial for creating the synergy that might come easier for an on-site staff. Making sure the entire virtual team has at least met each other and knows each other personally is a good start.
Working with the right tools is another crucial element for a virtual team, according to Steinbaum. His team relied on an instant messaging system to stay in touch constantly and take care of small communications that didn’t require a phone call.