Finding a Balance with Virtual Teams: Don't Let Them Get Lost in Space

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Maximizing resources isn't just about putting the right people on the right work at the right time. It's about harnessing the collective strength of your people. And in today's world, that means leveraging virtual and remote teams effectively.

In the recent CIO article "How to Lead a Virtual Team: 5 Keys for Success," author Josh Fruhlinger points out the need to boost communication with remote teams; document team agreements and action items; balance autonomy and connectedness; break into small teams where possible; and last, but not least, to never let "out of sight" be "out of mind."

This is sound advice for sure. Finding the right balance in making sure remote team members feel included but not micromanaged is vital to success. Likewise, in the sea of new collaboration technology, it's all too easy for decisions and information to get "lost in space" -- along with the remote workers themselves.  

Fans of the Lost in Space sci-fi series will no doubt be familiar with the robot's battle cry, "Danger, Will Robinson!" That's also what you should be thinking if your remote team members aren't being kept in the loop, or worse, are feeling micromanaged. 

Side Note: As a sci-fi author (in my other life), I'm a guest and speaker at lots of pop culture conventions. It just so happens I spent the weekend with a couple of wonderful Lost in Space actors, Marta Kristen (Judy) and Mark Goddard (Don West) at a show in Delaware. You never know where inspiration can come from!

But I digress.

Anyway, here's the thing. In today's world, millennials and other employees expect to work remotely, at least part of the time. Mergers, acquisitions, offshoring, and global expansion mean teams may be scattered all over. Even Agile teams, for which co-location is a founding principle, are now adapting to using technology for boosting virtual collaboration where necessary. 

In all, there are three areas to explore when leading virtual teams, along with certain dynamic tensions to consider for each:

  • Engagement -- How can remote people remain engaged while also being trusted to operated freely and independently?
     
  • Governance -- How can guiding themes and principles ensure consistency, while allowing for local needs and personal creativity?
     
  • Technology -- How can collaboration technology serve as an enabler without overloading people with too many tools to use or making them feel micromanaged? 

Mastering these areas is more of an art than a science, and what works for one team member may not work for another. Preferences could be location or culture-dependent as well. That's where good old candid communication comes in handy, talking to people about their desires and needs. 

Similarly, you don't want to burden remote team members with constant standard recurring meetings. I see this all the time as a weak substitute for good team collaboration. Again, some team members might prefer it. Some will see it as an annoyance.

Meanwhile, I'd challenge leaders to find ways to keep people in the loop and engaged while minimizing recurring meetings, though some may be needed for specific projects. Or make the meetings monthly, with ongoing collaboration in between. Again, this is more an art than a science, and can vary with each team member.

One last bit of advice. Always try to plan a face-to-face gathering, ideally at least quarterly, but no less frequently than yearly. Every virtual team I've come across touted huge boosts in belonging and engagement after each face-to-face meeting. A face-to-face meeting can go a long way.

Whichever approaches you settle on, just remember author Mark Sanborn's words, "In teamwork, silence isn't golden, it's deadly," That's when it's time to say, "Danger, Will Robinson!"


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Jerry Manas is the bestselling author of The Resource Management and Capacity Planning Handbook, Napoleon on Project Management, and more. At PDWare, Jerry helps clients improve strategy execution through tools and processes that align people and work with organizational priorities. Connect with Jerry on Twitter and LinkedIn