Virtual Team Success


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Article describes the practical and human side of creating and running a virtual project team. Advice is based on interviews with people who run their business through virtual employees and partners.

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Virtual Team Success

  2. 2. • BUSINESS MATTERS • Grow Your Business with B Y K AY C O R RY A U B R E Y VIRTUAL TEAMS Usability Resources Inc. • Bedford, MA • It has become so common that we scarcely notice anymore: com- puters, inexpensive telephone service and the internet allow many of us solo professionals to run complex full-service qual- Virtual teams itative research operations out of our home offices. We partner ad hoc with others whose expertise complements our own, and we stay in are a good way touch largely via electronic communications. This kind of “virtual” for you to take on work arrangement is, for many of us, just the way we do business. And for good reason: this model offers small businesses unique oppor- bigger projects, tunities for growth with very low investment. This article covers practical tips and best practices on how to create reach out into new thriving virtual teams. I am focusing on the type of ad hoc groups markets and offer most of us work within — small teams (no more than five people) of equals who know one another and come to work together on a project outstanding value basis. I gathered the advice below from interviews with 14 people to your clients. from my LinkedIn network who have extensive experience in either leading or taking part in virtual teams. Several are QRCA members; others are consultants from other industries, high-level managers and virtual company owners. Working Virtually Offers Compelling Advantages Working virtually offers so many advantages — companionship (albeit mostly by electronic means), low overhead and access to a large pool of people with very specific skills that you can match to the needs of a particular project. As Susan Saurage of Saurage Research remarks, “You get a better mix of talent, and the client expects it. I dip into my network of 18 people with specific talents on whom I can rely — qual, quant, web evaluation, segmentation strategy — and people who have these skills, plus who know my industries. I want to draw on the right56 QRCA VIEWS SUMMER 2010
  3. 3. people when I need them, but I do Susan Abbott of Abbott Research they are really good at,” she says.not need them 40 hours a week. agrees that human relationships “Sometimes we build goodwill byQRCA has been wonderful in help- trump everything else when it comes mentoring: you back me up, and Iing me find the right people.” to choosing virtual teammates. “I will share with you what I know If you are a solo practitioner, being have to like and trust the person,” about online research.”part of a network of people with she states. “If I can’t find people I Small teams work best, and ideallywhom you have good working rela- like, I don’t bid. You need to find people should already know eachtionships allows you to expand your partners who share your values, and other before they start working as aoperation when a really big project it is really important to talk about virtual team. To minimize coordi-presents itself. Lisa Figlioli, a solo these values upfront.” nation headaches, each person onpublic relations consultant in Cos your virtual team needs a uniqueCob, Conn., scales her business up Use Your Moderator Skills and clearly defined role, as well asas needed by tapping into a network a set of deliverables for which toof colleagues she has worked with to Find Good Partners and be responsible.for over a dozen years. “It’s all very Run Well-Oiled Teams Even on a team of equals, youloose,” she says. “We are all sole Finding the right business partner need a leader. This person is usuallyproprietors, mirror images of each is like a research project. Look for the one who closed the project saleother. When an opportunity comes highly experienced people with and assembled the group. The teammy way, I get a sense of what the distinct skills who can function leader is responsible for coordina-project might be, I choose my people, independently. Liz Van Patten tion and serves as client interfaceand we pitch together as though recommends that you “write down and traffic cop. The virtual teamthey work for my company.” the things you are concerned leader must have the people skills to about, what matters to you, and ensure that high-quality work getsThe Cornerstone of a Virtual use these questions to guide your done on time without coming across initial conversation.” as a micromanager. Tasks and deliv-Team Is Picking People You Once you have chosen your team- erables need to be broken into smallLike and Trust mates, spend time learning about one enough chunks, and the leader needsIt takes effort to set up a virtual team another and building the relation- to hold someone responsible for eachthat can present itself as a cohesive ship, maybe by working together one. The leader also needs to keep inunit. According to Dr. Aline Yurik, on a smaller project. Susan Abbott’s continuous contact, perhaps by talk-who founded the master’s program approach is also very much relation- ing with each person on the teamin virtual team management and ship-driven. “I want to know the every day to ask how things arecommunications at Brandeis Univer- type of work they enjoy and what going. The leader serves as the “glue”sity, trust is a key factor in determin-ing team success. “People on virtualteams can work together for yearsand never see each other, yet theyhave forged deep and trusting rela- TOP 10 TRICKS FOR SUCCESSFUL VIRTUAL TEAMStionships,” she says. “In any worksituation, we develop trust when we 1. Pick teammates you know, trust and like and who are committedfind similarities between ourselves to the success of your project.and others, by doing things together, 2. Select highly seasoned people who can work independently andby being responsive, by completing deliver quality work without being prodded.tasks on time.” 3. Do a test run with a new potential partner by working together on Many partnerships last for years, a smaller marriages. Liz Van Patten of Van 4. As you compose your virtual team, each person should have aPatten Research notes that it took clearly defined role, to avoid coordination headaches. Some overlaptime for her to find the people who is good so that you can fill in as needed.were right for her. “Choosing busi- 5. Break larger deliverables down into smaller chunks, and check inness partners is a lot like picking with team members regularly to make sure they are on track.your friends,” she comments. “It’s 6. Get everyone to sign off on “rules of the road” that define howlike gold when you find someone you your team will communicate with each well with; everything flows so 7. Hold weekly check-in meetings with your team.smoothly. I like to get to know the 8. Detect conflict early and deal with it.person on a trial basis, shoulder to 9. Try to meet in person with your client and team at least once duringshoulder, to gain some history and a project.see if we understand each other’s 10. Practice your presentation (including technology) before giving itpersonal style. I need to know if I to your client.can work with them.” Q U A L I TAT I V E R E S E A R C H C O N S U LTA N T S A S S O C I AT I O N 57
  4. 4. Grow Your Business with Virtual Teams C O N T I N U E D for the team: keeping everyone on owner of Life Meets Work, a com- Technology… track, establishing norms and guid- pany that trains organizations in You Need More than Email ing interactions. how to transition workers to virtual My interviewees describe a range of Deliverables should flow through environments. Kyra recommends vir- inexpensive or free tools as “indis- the team leader for review before tual team members sign off on a set pensable” for virtual teams: WebEx, they are sent out to the client. Susan of “rules of engagement” that for- Google Docs, Doodle, BaseCamp Abbott remarks, “As the project malize how the team communicates. and Tom’s Planner. Virtual teams leader, I always tell people what I For instance, everyone might agree need internet-based project-tracking need, when I need it and in what that after two emails on a particular technologies such as “to do” lists, format. I always build time into the subject, the parties need to pick up a team calendar, contacts, milestones schedule to fix anything I do not like the phone. Another rule might be and customer notes. Teammates before sending the deliverable to the that the subject lines of all team should be able to log into this system client; for instance, I’ll set a Tuesday emails have a set format: “Review: at any time to see what others are deadline for a Friday deliverable.” proposal xyz.” These little things go working on, what progress they are The more-established virtual teams a long way toward saving everyone’s making, what they are talking about follow style guides and templates. time, minimizing conflict and facil- and what help they need. Online At the outset of a project, the team itating clear communication. project-tracking systems also cut should also insist on getting clear down on email. requirements from the client, as well On the other hand, some teams as a statement of work and a formal Detect Conflict Early, and Deal with It Immediately thrive with limited technology. Anne change-control process. And as in Tobin’s human resources company, any project, you need to manage It is crucial for virtual teams to have an early warning system to Tobin Connex, is totally virtual. She client expectations aggressively. stays in continuous contact with her detect and address conflict. Pay close attention to changes in writing tone, consultants and clients via the phone Maintaining Open and face-to-face communication. communication patterns and other Communication and Group behavior to detect conflict and emo- “My business is all about relation- Cohesion Takes Time tion. Changes in behavior — a mem- ships and proving your value,” she Even small teams need infrastructure ber stops responding to IMs or says. “I need to make sure I have up- to operate smoothly. Rituals help. For emails, shows up late for meetings to-date information on my clients so example, you might have a weekly or starts sending in flat single-page I can do the HR work they require. phone huddle to touch base. It is status reports instead of lively three- Managing a virtual team requires a always a good practice for everyone page memos — may signal trouble. lot of follow-up on my part. I regu- to contribute to a weekly status Aline Yurik advises, “Notice any larly attend customer staff meetings. report that is sent to the client. The changes in behavior or attitude. You I am able to keep a lot of balls in process of pulling together a status need to bring conflict to light, even the air.” report allows team members to reg- more so on a virtual team because ularly evaluate their performance, people don’t see each other.” Your Rolodex Is Your Gold measure their progress against the When you suspect problems, call It is difficult to have a virtual busi- schedule and clear up conflict and the person and hear him out. Identify ness without many contacts, both misunderstanding. the people involved and engage in a vendors and partners. You need to In the physical work environment, positive open-minded talk with each be established in your field. Paige we spend a lot of time understanding party. Tell them you are sensing ten- Arnoff-Fenn’s virtual marketing and interpreting the social envi- sion and invite them talk about their firm, Mavens & Moguls, has been ronment and norms of the people concerns. Once you understand these featured in two Harvard Business around us. In a virtual environment, and have discussed possible solu- Review case studies. Paige also feels “you need to put all of this on tions, arrange a meeting to resolve she is essentially in the “relation- paper,” advises Kyra Cavanaugh, the conflict. ship business.” She spends most of her time traveling to meet with customers, networking and gen- erating more leads and business. “Once you have a seat at the table Changes in behavior — a member stops and have their trust, you see all responding to IMs or emails, shows up your customer’s problems,” she points out, “and this opens up even late for meetings or starts sending in flat more opportunities. In today’s single-page status reports instead of lively climate, your real asset is your Rolodex, your relationships; this three-page memos — may signal trouble. is the gold.”58 QRCA VIEWS SUMMER 2010
  5. 5. Virtual teams should meet before a presentation — to transfer knowledge, get their messaging aligned and practice.Virtual Client ManagementHow do you make sure your virtual clientrelationships work well? Some virtualteams get into trouble because they failto make clear to the client the team’s chainof command or to explain each member’srole. Bonnie Cooper oversees complexprojects for the Massachusetts MedicalSociety. Her first piece of advice to virtualteams is to make sure your client under-stands how your team is organized. Bonnierecommends that you tell them, “‘Here’swho we are, here’s how we operate, hereis our escalation path, and this individualis responsible for your project.’ You needto give them a context.” All communica-tion should flow through the designatedteam leader, who should also have theability to triage client needs and get aquick response to them. A lack of business systems can beanother area of weakness for virtual teams.“So often, I need to spend time learning avendor’s systems, which is time-consumingand frustrating,” Bonnie says. The virtualteam should have business systems thatallow them to track their work, knowwhere things are and get a quick andaccurate status of where things standagainst the Statement of Work. Presentations can be another area ofchallenge for virtual teams, especially ifmembers are working independently anddo not check in with one another in theiranalysis and reporting. Bonnie works withvendors who have lots of virtual team mem-bers (both employees and consultants),and they don’t all take time to be surethat everyone is on the same page. “Youcan tell quickly when the team has not
  6. 6. Grow Your Business with Virtual Teams C O N T I N U E D prepared as a group,” she says. interface designer, there is always a don’t have the chance to pick up on “They stumble, they disagree, hand- risk that things will get lost in trans- the nonverbal communication going offs are not smooth, and they do not lation when she works virtually with on in the other end. You don’t see seem to be paying attention in a vir- people who do not understand her people’s facial expressions (who tual way. Teams need time to delib- expertise. To prevent this, when start- looks discouraged, who is making erate so they have a unified voice.” ing up with a new client, she and her eye contact). “Sometimes this is just Virtual teams should meet before team schedule a kickoff meeting unavoidable,” she says. “I have a presentation — to transfer knowl- where they walk through a full- clients whom I have never met, and edge, get their messaging aligned blown design exercise. The meeting it has been fine. But they have a and practice. Particularly in the gives everyone a chance to get to sophisticated sense of visual design realm of presentations, “the virtual know one another. This initial meet- and the design process, and they element exacerbates any issues,” ing also provides an opportunity for shield me from the internal politics Bonnie says. As they practice, the “group therapy,” where clients can of the work we are doing.” team should also test the technologies voice frustration with their product’s Using virtual teams to build your they plan to use. On the day of the appearance and usability. business will not be without chal- meeting, it is a good idea to convene There is such a thing as being too lenges. But it represents a good way at least a half an hour before the virtual. When she can, Debbie likes for you to take on bigger projects, actual meeting to make sure every- to be physically present at key points reach out into new markets and give thing is set up and working; even a in a project, such as initial design outstanding value to your clients. bad phone connection will throw reviews. “The worst thing is to be For summaries of all the inter- everything off. talking about visual issues remotely, views I conducted on virtual teams, Another area of challenge is stay- and you have no idea what they see please visit www.virtual-team- ing in tune with the client’s mindset. on their end, for example with color To Debbie Falck, a graphic and user- shifts,” she comments. Further, you60 QRCA VIEWS SUMMER 2010