Whatever size company you own or work for, chances are at some point you will be in the position where you need to manage virtual contractors, employees—or be a part of a virtual team yourself. There are several relatively simple things you can do to make this a positive and productive experience for everyone involved. All it takes is a little effort and consistency.

I have had experience working on virtual teams, but not in a senior management role. I reached out to a client of mine, Michael Sanders, who is the president of Legacy Solutions, a telecommunications expense management consulting firm to see what his thoughts were. He shared, “Managing remote employees can be successful as long as one understands the fundamental elements. First, you need to hire correctly. The employee must be a self-starter, and not need constant attention. Second, set parameters, expectations and goals—and measure accordingly. This does not mean micromanaging. You need to treat employees as professionals.”

But what does an employee need to do on their side? The need for constant communication goes both ways it seems. Michael added, “The employee should be cognizant to let people know they are at work, not by punching a time clock, but by communicating (e.g., IM, e-mail, Skype). With the advent of cloud computing, we are all enabled to be remote or virtual workers.”

What are the biggest challenges of managing a virtual employee? Michael stressed, “It’s important to recognize during periods of slow business cycles, ‘out of sight out of mind’ is a common phenomenon. The remote worker needs to be proactive creating work or asking for assignments. And management needs to keep them in mind.”

I was part of a team at a major global consulting firm charged with creating a methodology to be used world-wide for doing risk system selection projects. I worked in headquarters and we were always being told that we didn’t consider the other regions – Europe, Asia Pacific, etc. enough. My manager did a really smart thing and selected a primary project manager who was based in Sydney.

I was the North American project manager, and we also had someone based in London to represent Europe. This was my first time being involved in a team like this – so many time zones, especially when we included the partners who were involved. Singapore’s time difference really threw a monkey wrench into our call planning!

We were a highly effective team for several reasons. We regularly:
• Kept all team members updated on progress via e-mail. This was helpful because team members could look at the e-mails at their convenience.
• Scheduled regular telephone calls. We had calls that everyone attended to talk about issues that couldn’t be handled by e-mail, or to discuss the overall strategy and progress of the project. These calls helped us to feel connected and more like a team. We got to know the other members as people as well as professionals.
• Were very conscious of giving positive and constructive feedback. It is important to be more polite when working with people from other cultures. Sometimes informal language and actions are not part of their culture and can create issues.
• Met face-to-face when possible. We were able to schedule a few in-person meetings, which helped cement relationships. We worked side-by-side for several days in a conference room and went out for team dinners at night.

That project took place 10 years ago, so we didn’t have the benefit of IM, Skype, Google+ hangouts or any technology tools like that. I can see those tools really boosting the cohesiveness and effectiveness of virtual teams. In my own business I have used them with great results.

The new way we work will definitely include managing or working in virtual teams, whether you are physically located in the same city or halfway around the world.
Personally, I love knowing and working with people from different countries. It’s a small world after all!

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