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Do You Need Special Skills to Lead Virtual Teams?

written by: Nan Nan Liu • edited by: Wendy Finn • updated: 10/16/2014

Think managing virtual teams is the same as managing physical teams? Think again! When you can't talk to team members in person, you need special skills to make the project successful. But, what leadership skills are needed to manage a virtual team?

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    Virtual teams, a concept still foreign to many, have changed the way project managers coordinate projects. Without face-to-face interaction, virtual team members must correspond through other means such as emails, online meetings and phone conferences that can feel distant and unsociable. Leading virtual teams, therefore, gets difficult at times and takes exceptional skills from the PM to manage one effectively.

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    What Is a Virtual Team?

    25198hpewutex04 A virtual team is a team made of members with complementary skills working towards a common purpose, but is separated physically and must interact electronically. They do, however, meet up in person from time to time.

    As organizations become global and cost-conscious, virtual teams become more widely used. By eliminating the expenses of traveling, relocating and acquiring real estate, companies can bring employees at different locations together to work on the same projects. Ideally, virtual teams help increase productivity and maximize profit while reducing cost.

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    Special Skills to Manage the Virtual Team

    Virtual projects tend to fail if managed poorly. A project manager with special skills, however, can lead an isolated and distant group of people and become successful.

    So, what leadership skills are needed to manage a virtual team?

    Be a Self-Starter

    Like your team members, you also work independently. You spend your days alone and apart from co-workers. They do not know what you do and you have no idea what they work on. In isolation and without stimulation from others, you can easily slip into slacker mode.

    To manage a virtual team successfully, you have to motivate yourself to get the work started, keep the momentum going and finish the job on time. With no one there to help, you must work extra hard to get things going. Show your team a professional image as a project manager and you are already off to a good start.

    Use Clear Communication

    Because information gets confusing through virtual correspondence, it is important to communicate clearly. When you give directions, make them precise. When you set a deadline, make it definite. Articulating exact, meticulous and carefully formulated words gives the team a clear conception and eliminates misunderstandings.

    Speak Authoritatively

    When you talk to the team, speak authoritatively. Doing so lets everyone know that you direct the process and demand results. Even if they do not answer you in person, they need to meet your expectations and give you their utmost respect.

    Be Results- and Task- oriented

    Without checking in face-to-face, how do you know when team members slack off? They can report that they are doing fine, when in reality work isn’t progressing. To ensure that things are getting done, assign specific tasks and ask for specific results. For example, in software, ask developers to deliver certain functionalities and make sure that the product passes all testing. By pressuring for results, you get real progress.

    Be Technically Savvy

    With so much technical dependency, virtual team managers need certain amounts of technical skills. Know how to use both the hardware and software to conduct meetings and communications. Also know how to troubleshoot if things break. With teams going electronic, managers are expected to acquire technical skills.

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    Disadvantages and How to Overcome Them

    While virtual teams offer many benefits, they also have disadvantages -- this is where your leadership skills really come into play. Electronic communication, after all, does lack a personable feel and the effectiveness of actual, physical teams. However, there are ways to overcome these disadvantages, using your skills to build a top-notch successful virtual team to deliver quality products.

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    Less Efficiency in Communication - Encourage Team Collaboration

    Instead of walking over to a co-worker’s desk to discuss specific details, virtual team members have to pick up the phone, start an instant message or send an email. While all these communication methods work well, a quick question-and-answer session can last longer than usual.

    For example, if you need to identify discrepancies within a design drawing, instead of bringing a printout over to your co-worker’s desk and dive straight into conversation, you need to call the person, ask him or her to open an electronic copy on the computer and walk through the drawing over the phone to reflect the problems you have.

    While it is hard to speed up certain types of communication without face-to-face interaction, a PM can help the situation with creative ideas. For example, if team members need to discuss the same documentation, such as design drawings, enforce the team to save all artifacts under a shared location. This way, they know exactly where to look for every conversation. Or ask each team member to dedicate one to two hours each day for support so when others need their expertise, they are readily available.

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    Dependency on Technology - Be Prepared

    To communicate electronically, virtual teams depend heavily on technology. While modern technology works well most of the time, they do, however, fail once in a while. What if the laptop doesn’t work? What if the Internet connection is lost? What if the virtual meeting software you are using crashes? Any technical difficulties can potentially harm the project and reduce productivity.

    Even if you are not in the technology field, you should sharpen your skills just because you have to use technology to conduct business. With training, you can learn how to properly use and troubleshoot problems. Prior to meetings, make sure that the tools work as expected and that you are connected to the network. Even if they break, at least you won’t be surprised. Another good way to overcome technical difficulties is to have a backup plan. Have printouts of presentations sent to the team in case power point all of a sudden crashes or get phone conferencing ready in case video doesn't work.

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    A Lot of Assumptions - Clear Communication

    When information and ideas are exchanged through emails and instant messages, they are often expressed unclearly. Therefore, a lot of assumptions are made due to the lack of in-person explanation, causing misunderstandings and erroneous actions.

    To mitigate any misunderstandings and ensure that the entire team is on the same page, hold a clarification meeting everyday or every other day and recite all pertinent information and how the entire team should interpret them. By double checking with team members, you reduce their chances of making assumptions.

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    Less Personable - Frequently Run Virtual Meetings

    During virtual communication, you never truly get to know your team members. You cannot see their expressions, watch their body language or feel the mood in the room. If your team member makes a joke, it might come across as an insult. If your team member feels uncomfortable about a topic and leans back in his or her seat to gesture an end to the discussion, you cannot witness this alarming body language. With a less personable personality, virtual teams lack the face-to-face familiarity physical teams possess.

    To make the interaction more personable, try meeting frequently through video conferencing or Skype. Although it won’t feel the same as sitting at a meeting together, at least you can see the people you are talking to and not feel so distant.

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    Independent Team Members - Motivate Your Team

    While most trusted professionals perform well independently, some do not have the same self-motivation when they depart from a physical team environment. These people thrive on social interactions, and when they join a team so far removed from each other, they lack the ability to push themselves forward.

    As a PM, you need to supply them proper motivation. Give them results-driven tasks with hard deadlines and check in often. Having looming due dates on specific tasks makes people work hard.

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    Though cost-effective and flexible, virtual teams are also difficult to manage. Without the physical presence of team members, managers often find themselves isolated, frustrated and unknowing. However, with a few special skills, leading virtual teams can prove successful as well as beneficial to your team and your organization.

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