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Virtual Team Management: Key Ingredients for Creating a Potent Distributed Team

What is a virtual global management team?

More companies than ever are able to leverage the benefits of technology to work with remote team members distributed across different parts of the globe. Working with such teams is a great way to win in the battle for talent while benefiting from a mix of skills, talents, and experiences.

As a manager or company founder, you should know how to build a good team and make it efficient. But what if your team is going to be partially or fully remote? Contrary to popular belief, numerous studies show that remote workers are more efficient and hardworking than on-site teams.

The challenge is, how do you make a distributed team as effective and strong as possible? How do you overcome language and cultural barriers to encourage team members to work well together and achieve shared goals? How does this translate into impactful project outcomes?

Some startup founders are following in the footsteps of Zapier and Buffer, not bothering with an office or assembling a team in the same country. Instead, new startups and software or development companies are going entirely remote from day one. Making it even more important that the remote teams they recruit come together as a team and work together successfully from the start.

Ingredients of a successful distributed team

#1. A strong sense of purpose

Teams without a sense of purpose fail. You need a shared mission, something that everyone can get behind, something that everyone wants to achieve and is going to work hard to reach this objective. Maybe you want a million users. Or to work with global brands. Or to be an award-winning agency with clients in dozens of countries. Whatever it is; communicate this clearly to your remote teams and make sure they support the goal.

#2. Open, clear, and honest communication

Open, clear and honest communication is the foundation of strong remote teams. Companies with a distributed structure depend on team members communicating clearly with each other and managers.

#3. Inspiring leadership

Your teams need leaders they want to follow. Developers with skills and talent and experience could work for any number of companies remotely, raise funding if they’ve got a solid startup idea, and any number of other companies are happy to give the right talent a visa if they wanted to live and work somewhere else. Why should they want to work with or for your company? Skilled professional stay or leave companies depending on the relationship they have with their managers. Leadership matters. Especially when teams are remote and building those bonds of trust takes more time and work. Focus on those who are going to be leading teams and make sure they’ve got the communication and leadership skills necessary to forge strong and successful teams.

#4. A positive/common team culture

Company culture is a defining characteristic of workplaces in the first decades of this century. Professionals stay where they feel the culture is aligned with their values, and they leave when this isn’t the case. Is your culture supportive and encouraging for employees and freelancers? Do staff feel looked after and supported?

Creating the right culture is an essential part of managing a remote team. Leaders need to get everyone on the same page. One of the ways you do this is through forging a company culture that welcomes and supports everyone so that the team can do their best work.

Let’s take a look at how team leaders and co-founders can put these aspects of remote team management into practice.

4 steps to create a strong distributed team

#1: A strong sense of purpose

According to futurist and author, Jacob Morgan, a sense of purpose is a two-way street: “The greatest sense of purpose comes when both the organization is able to connect what the employee does to the impact they are having and when the employee shows up with an open mind, ready to contribute and give it their all. This is not a one-sided solution.”

To be clear, this means companies creating and supporting this sense of purpose. And employees or contractors being open and responsive to contribute to the shared mission and goals.

But how do you achieve this sense of purpose in practice? Here are three ways you can do this within your remote teams.

  • Connect team members work with the outcomes. Too often, employees and freelancers are silo’ed into doing certain tasks without seeing the big picture or end-result. Motivated team members want to feel as though what they do matters. Connect what they’re doing with the outcomes and impacts.
    Younger generations, Millennials in particular, need to know that their work matters. According to Jon Iwata, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communications at IBM:

“The purpose of their work matters greatly to them. They don’t want to differentiate what they do in their personal life from what they do in their professional life. It matters to them… And they assume that the companies they work for or engage with are going to engage with them on that basis.”

  • Create growth and learning opportunities. Another way to silo employees is to make 100% of their time at work about achieving project outcomes. Without opportunities for career development, growth and learning, team members are going to quickly feel boxed in and looking for a way out. Learning and development opportunities are important for improving skills and knowledge and as a way of encouraging people to stay with your company instead of going elsewhere.
  • Use the Collaborative Leader Action Model approach (CLAM). Created by Dan Pontefract, a Big Think expert and Chief Envisioner at TELUS, they found that employee engagement increased 90% using the CLAM approach to leadership. There are “six C’s” to this leadership model:
  1. Connect. Aim to continuously connect with team members on an emotional and transformational level.
  2. Consider. As a leader, ask for input when making key or difficult decisions and show that you are considering a wide range of options whenever possible. This builds consensus and strengthens the team.
  3. Communicate. When a decision has been made, be proactive, open and honest in communicating this and whenever possible, why a certain decision was the best one to go ahead with.
  4. Create. Execute what was decided, and communicate in an engaging, open and honest way.
  5. Confirm. Keep team members and yourself accountable by showing what was decided has been done, and ideally, what the outcomes were. Bring everyone together to communicate key moments in the growth of a team and company.
  6. Congratulate. Often overlooked in fast-pace and high-growth environments: recognize people and accomplishments.

#2. Open, clear, and honest communication

Trust is an essential ingredient when building a strong remote team.

The problem is, that trust is more difficult to forge when team members are in different countries and timezones. People may only be online at the same time for a few hours, making asynchronous communication more difficult. You can’t just grab a coffee when a co-worker is hundreds of miles away, or in another country or timezone. Remote team members are more isolated.

To overcome these challenges, here are a few ways to establish and improve open, clear and honest   communication within remote teams:

  • Have the right tools and platforms. Make sure there are clear and easy-to-use email, messenger and virtual conference call tools and platforms to facilitate quick and clear communications. Virtual team management tools and timezone apps are equally useful. It also helps to check that team members are working from environments that are comfortable for them, relatively quiet, and have strong Wi-Fi signal.
  • Establish clear rules and response timescales. Online communication etiquette makes a big difference. As a manager, you should know when to expect deliverables and updates, and likewise, team members should have clear expectations. Set fixed times for feedback and group calls. Clear expectations make remote communications easier and more effective for everyone.
  • Encourage virtual coffees. When teams are in the same office, those “water cooler” and break room moments are invaluable for team building and encouraging new ideas and collaborative opportunities. Yes, it takes more work and clear times to schedule these conversations when team members are remote, but the opportunities to improve team morale are just as powerful.
  • Virtual or in-person retreats. Some companies, such as Buffer, get the whole team together or sub-teams together at least once a year. If your company has the budget and can make the time this is strongly encouraged. Another way to do this – and one that costs less – is to get everyone together remotely for a chat, coffee, and a few beers. Even spend some downtime playing a virtual game together. Getting to know one another outside of purely work conversations makes the team stronger.
  • Open schedules. Make sure team members know when managers are available for “drop in” chats, or when they’re working on a problem or talking with a client. This way, if a problem is urgent, they’re clearer on when they can expect a response or have the chance to have a quick chat.
  • Team video conferences. To make your remote team stronger, these shouldn’t be opportunities for one or two people to dominate the call when others are bored or multi-tasking. Use these calls as productive opportunities to work through problems, with everyone updated on everyone else’s progress before the call through written reports and summary updates. Use tools such as iDoneThis to make this process quicker. Giving your team the time to enjoy really productive conference calls.

#3. Inspiring leadership

Inspiring leaders can make a real impact in remote teams. Inspiring leaders encourage team members to produce better work, to grow, to make a difference and to develop products that make a positive impact on clients and end-users.

Inspiring leadership is not something someone is born with; it can be taught. It is a skill, learned over time and with experience. Of course, if you are born with the foundations of leadership skills, such as the ability to persuade and communicate clearly, then time, training and experience will make these skills stronger and take you even further.

Some of the skills you need to work on and develop to become an inspiring leader include:

  • Building authority and credibility. How can you show a remote team that you should be entrusted with leadership? It is no longer enough to say, “Well I’m the boss, so you should follow me.” Teams succeed when they can see that a leader has the credibility to lead them. One way to demonstrate this is with a blog, Medium channel, social networks and publishing articles on LinkedIn. Blogs, using social media and podcasts are great ways to showcases skills, experience and knowledge.
  • Reward and encourage. Use reciprocity. bring this principle to life by constantly rewarding your employees. For example, you can give them a shoutout in a team meeting for delivering good work or letting them know what a client said about what they’ve done recently.
  • Remain consistent. Inconsistent leaders, those who don’t do what they say when they say, don’t inspire teams. One way to do this is ask your remote employees to verbalize their commitments during a live meeting and see whether they stick to those commitments during work. As a leader, you need to do the same to demonstrate consistent leadership skills.

#4. A positive/common team culture

Company culture defines a business internally, which has a direct impact on how a company is perceived externally. Even if your team is spread around the world, how happy and engaged they are has a direct impact on the work they do and therefore on your clients.

Culture defines companies. It impacts everything from profit margins to staff turnover.

Creating the right culture is an essential part of managing a remote team.

So, what should the management do to establish a strong virtual team?

Putting in place the right processes, communication procedures and tools, leadership practices and a sense of purpose is all part of creating the right culture. Monitor how engaged your team is, or isn’t, and find ways to improve that score. Implement learning and development opportunities. Reward team members for performing well. Whenever possible, create job security, career opportunities and look after the mental health of team members.

There are lots of ways you can build a good team and positive culture. Look for the most effective ways that work well for your teams.

Over to you

Building a strong remote team is the key challenge of virtual team management. In many ways, it is more challenging than doing that when everyone is in the same office. But the rewards are greater. Remote teams are more productive. There are some remote teams around the world building some truly amazing and high-impact products and services.

With the right approach to leadership, communication and company culture, you can establish remote teams that are strong, coherent and communicate effectively. Make a bet on them, and make a bet on yourself to take the positive steps you need to make this a reality.

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Mary Atamaniuk

Mary Atamaniuk is a digital content strategist at YouTeam — a curated b2b tech talent marketplace that matches businesses with dedicated development teams from pre-vetted software outsourcing agencies.

Mary's areas of interest include digital marketing, tech entrepreneurship, and influencer blogging.

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