Managing virtual teams distributed around the world

Balvinder Powar. Professor. IE Business School

28 November 2014

The future is here and we are immersed in a virtual and globalized world where it is no longer important where you are - what matters is the value you bring to a project. Welcome to this new way of managing teams. 

We are already immersed in the virtual/global world – it doesn’t matter where you are, what matters is the value you contribute.

Although we might form part of a virtual team, the work in itself is still very, very real.”

I’m sitting in my office in Madrid writing this article, an English citizen of Indian origin, knowing that the people who read my article could be anyone in the world who knows English (or Spanish for the Spanish version) or maybe other languages by means of an online translator. It is possible that some of you could contact me via LinkedIn or other social networks after reading the article to start up communication through virtual networks, which may result in a “real” face-to-face meeting somewhere in the world – like magic almost...

Today we don’t need to be in the same office to work effectively. A company may manufacture products in China, have a design team in Italy, have its “back office” in India, and sales teams scattered around the world – and this would be absolutely normal.

This poses challenges but also brings many opportunities to be more efficient, save money, and work with very diverse people, choosing the best person for each position in the organization. At BOOSTER Space Industries, we are a relatively small company which heads a large consortium comprising several of the best firms in the world in the aviation and aeronautical sectors. In our case, the fact that the majority of our collaborators are engineers helps us enormously because generally speaking they are highly structural and organized profiles.

Today, information technologies are available and accessible to far more people and no longer the barrier that they once were. We have internet at the office and at home, we have smartphones, we use Skype, WeChat, messaging apps, files that are shared online.... All this makes the work of virtual/distributed teams easier.

We’re impatient, we want everything now, the world is moving quickly and we have to move at the same pace…

I want the article to be of help to readers. Hence I am going to list my main tips for managing virtual teams, based on my experience.

Tips:

  • Organize frequent meetings held via video conference or conference calls in order to ensure that everyone is very clear on the work that has to be done.
  • Sometimes doing the same things at the same time as communicating can create empathy. For instance, when you’re celebrating a success, you could all enjoy a pizza or drink something in front of the computer to make the distance feel smaller...
  • Communicate more and better, particularly if there are doubts, and problems. This will compensate for the lack of face-to-face meetings.
  • Be available to speak/ communicate, because working alone can be a very solitary exercise.
  • Agree on the best times to hold virtual meetings if the team is spread around the world in a way that is fair to everyone. If necessary, rotate the times you make the calls so that it isn’t always the same people who have to be up at the crack of dawn!
  • Explain, in detail, what is happening, especially if there are cultural diversity issues in the team. That way you can contextualize more, avoid problems and handle them better if they arise.
  • It is good to combine virtual work with face-to-face meetings.
  • When we recruit new members for the team, we share best practices we have learnt in terms of virtual work and how to find the right people for this type of work - responsible, pro-active, independent style of working, structured, organized, reliable, etc.
  • Trust other members of the team, but make sure that everyone is clear on everything, for instance, working with objectives using SMART methodology - Specific + Measurable + Assignable + Realist + Time-related.
  • Dealing with issues and problems as they occur, which is even more important when you are not face-to-face with the other person.

For a start-up, or even an established business, virtual work can be challenging but it offers many advantages, including lower costs, access to different skills, knowledge and markets, as well as the fact that teams can be working 24 hours a day due to time differences. This explains, for instance, the boom and success of firms that provide outsourced processes from India, working virtually as the back office for companies in the US and other countries.

Good luck with your projects in an ever shrinking world....

Thank you. 

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