Thursday, June 23, 2011

Five qualities of successful virtual teams

When I started working with ProtonMedia back in 2003, we were a completely virtual company focused on building e-learning solutions. Our fledgling start-up had about five employees, all of whom worked from our homes until we moved three years later into the office building we're in now.

The communication and collaboration tools we used created the fabric that held us together. E-mail and phone were big. So was instant messaging. It was probably the main way we communicated with one another on a daily basis. We even used an open source VoIP tool that became popular with our developers.

We faced many of the common challenges that most virtual teams grapple with. We had to learn to communicate well virtually, and trust one another without being in our physical presences. We needed the self-discipline to avoid getting distracted by the kids or Xbox consoles.

I think it took a mental shift among those of us who hadn't worked virtually before. But once we were settled into our routine, it was like second nature.

I was brought back to this after reading a new study by Brandman University researchers Charles Bullock, JD, LLM and Jennifer Tucker Klein, Ph.D., "Virtual Work Environments in the Post-Recession Era." It looked at trends in virtual teaming among large and Fortune 500 companies.

It's no surprise that 40 percent of respondents said that at least 40 percent of their employees work on virtual teams. But what I found most interesting was how these companies measured a successful virtual team.

Many of the qualities they deem important reflect our early ProtonMedia team. And through the years of working virtually, I have learned just how essential these qualities are. So I thought it useful to share some lessons I've learned about building and running a successful virtual team.

Hire the guy from Vermont. Hire the guy from Vermont, Montana, Canada, wherever. Geographical location is a moot point when it comes to building a virtual team. The Brandman study found that 50 percent of the companies surveyed thought the most important aspect of working in virtual teams was that it allowed them to hire the best talent. We learned that early on with one of the most skilled Flash developers ProtonMedia has had. He lived in Vermont and had no intentions of moving to Pennsylvania, where CEO Ron Burns was located. But since we had the ability to support virtual teaming, we hired him full time.

Speak like the natives. You've got to learn the lingo when working virtually. On our team, that meant honing our AIM, e-mail, and phone communication skills. Brandman University found 57 percent of companies said their virtual teams exhibit excellent communication skills. I believe that's because you have to when you don't have body language and physical presence to help you communicate. We were in constant communication with each other, spending full days logged on AIM. It became very efficient to lob over a question and get an instant answer.

Step away from the Xbox. There can be a lot of distractions when working from home. The TV is on. The kids want to play. Homemade cookies are in the kitchen around the corner. It can be easy to take a break. But the Brandman study found 56 percent of companies said their virtual teams exhibited the ability to perform job responsibilities in a clear and timely manner -- that means despite all the distractions around you. I learned that it takes creating a routine, just as if you were punching the clock from nine to five. Wake up at 7:00 in the morning, grab a cup of Joe, and start your day.

Do a few trust falls. The issue of trust rears its head immediately when working virtually. Especially as a manager, you need to ensure your team is meeting deadlines and deliverables even though you can't physically walk over to their desk. The Brandman study found 46 percent of virtual teams exhibited trust and commitment. To build it, I find team members have to demonstrate self-discipline and accountability. This is also why establishing a routine is important. In addition, I often looked for freelancers when we had a hiring need. This was because most freelancers are used to working independently and from remote locations, and have discipline and accountability down.

About face! No matter how prevalent virtual teaming gets, face-to-face interactions will never go away. It remains a crucial and irreplaceable part of building and strengthening team bonds. The Brandman study found that 57 percent of companies worry that by working virtually they will lose familiarity and comfort with their employees. This was certainly a concern of ours. So in our early years, we rented out classroom space once a month in Fort Washington, Pa., for company meetings. We used the time to talk about projects and connect on a more personal level. It was a pleasure getting together in person, and we got to know one another as people, not just black-and-white text on a computer screen.

Taken together, these experiences have influenced how we started thinking about ProtoSphere and what we could achieve with it. For instance, we were using several disparate tools to communicate in our early days -- AIM, e-mail, phone, VoIP.

We thought, what if you could combine them in one system so teammates could have one location from which they could pick what tool they wanted to use for the task at hand? As you probably know, that's a major part of what we've done with ProtoSphere. And that's grown to include other communication and collaboration capabilities, such as document sharing.

Our integration with face-to-face meetings showed us how you can use virtual teaming and in-person engagements together as complementary communication and collaboration means. While some things are better accomplished in person, others are more effectively done virtually.

We've made ProtoSphere into a tool that helps teams merge their in-person and virtual engagements into a cohesive strategy. So for example, after a physical event, you can store, open, and continue to collaborate on content presented during the event in ProtoSphere. That can also extend the time between face-to-face engagements, because teams can accomplish their collaboration needs virtually.

These are some of the ways we discovered that we're onto something with ProtoSphere. Even today, I still work from home one or two days a week, partially because gas prices are killing me, but mostly because I want to continue working on a virtual team.

I have ProtoSphere running all day, and everyone in the company knows they can find me there. I want to experience firsthand what our customers are experiencing when they're in ProtoSphere and working virtually, and use that knowledge to make our application as valuable as possible.

We've seen the future of virtual teaming for some time. It's exciting to be part of the wave and play a fundamental role in providing the capabilities to help teams work together virtually. I hope my lessons are useful to you in your virtual teaming efforts. What other advice do you have to share?

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