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Professional tips on working with virtual teams

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In today’s global environment, companies are facing unprecedented growth through international mergers and acquisitions. Moreover, they are also experimenting with alternative working arrangements, thus transforming the conventional workplace into a virtual one.

In order for virtual teams to work effectively, team leaders should consider the following ground rules:

  • Scheduling virtual team meetings (conference calls or video calls) on a regular basis.
  • Obtaining feedback from team members on what is working well and what needs to change for the virtual team to become more effective.
  • Asking everyone to actively listen and participate in the meetings. People should be discouraged from multitasking, such as checking and responding to emails, or using instant messenger during meetings.
  • Ensuring that group meetings are complemented by one-on-one meetings to address any issues or concerns that are of a more personal or confidential nature. As the American author Max DePree said, “The needs of the team are best met when we meet the needs of individual persons”.
  • Scheduling in-person get-togethers at least once a year, so that team members have an opportunity to get to know each other better and form closer bonds.
  • Since virtual teams typically rely quite heavily on technology, it is important for team leaders to use technology to their advantage, as well as encourage team members to familiarize themselves with any virtual tools they may be using.

Some of the most commonly used e-collaboration tools are:

Video Conferencing

Pros: Great for sharing important messages, discussing key projects, or for inviting an important guest speaker to join the group.

Cons: More expensive technology, not always available, and more difficult to set-up (typically through the company’s IT department).

LiveMeeting Teleconferencing

Pros: All team members can follow the same presentation at the same time, and the team leader or facilitator can ask for instant input using tools such as the whiteboard or polls. The audio portion of the meeting can typically be done either through the PC speakers and microphone, or through a third party conference call organizer, such as Telus, Bell, or Rogers in Canada.

Cons: Sometimes using a third party conference call organizer poses the risk of an outside caller accidentally or intentionally accessing the call. There are also limits on the maximum number of participants per call.

Office Communicator

Pros: It can be used for urgent inquiries where a quick and brief response is needed. It can also be used if the respective individual is on a conference call and wants to advise someone else they would be late for a meeting or unable to join, etc.

Cons: It should not be used for information that needs to be tracked and recorded. Emails are recommended in those instances. Some people do not like it and prefer other forms of communications, such as emails or phone calls.

Interestingly, when compared to conventional teams, it appears that virtual teams are in fact not that different. Similar rules of engagements apply to both, and they both require a strong team culture. As Ken Blanchard so aptly put it, “None of us is as smart as all of us.”

The biggest challenge with virtual teams is for people to feel connected, to feel a sense of belonging. This is especially true when some of the team members are remote, while others work together, in the same location. Setting aside time to socialize occasionally, just like the team would if they were all working in the same office, will help team members feel more connected.

Virtual Office Expansion

Whether businesses originate from home offices or from corporate centers, their owners can benefit from a growing list of functions offered by virtual office service providers. These services allow business owners to see their companies grow without requiring them to expand their physical office space or to hire additional staff.

Creating a New Business Environment

Virtual office service providers can create an entirely new physical context for businesses. HQ.com and Officescape.com both provide an impressive suite of offices, meeting rooms and teleconferencing facilities from which businesses appear to originate. Owners contract with these companies for the use of such facilities only when needed and thus avoid the expenses of full-time rental or purchase.

Providing Virtual Mailing Addresses

Having an impressive address to use to send and receive items enhances any company’s professional image. The UPS store helps by providing businesses with a virtual street address rather than a just a post office box number and by notifying them when packages arrive at that virtual location. This service is especially attractive to those who work from home offices since it negates the necessity of releasing home address to clients.

Supplying Telephone Services

Virtual telephone service providers can help businesses stay in contact with clients and employees. Skype.com lets business owners and managers meet with them face-to-face through video and conference calls. Google’s GrandCentral provides a similar service. Since these calls are made over the Internet, the increasingly high costs of company-owned telephone equipment can be avoided.

Filling Software Needs

Web-based business software allows work assignments to be completed from any location. Zoho.com and GoogleDocs both provide integrated office suites containing word processing, spreadsheet, database and presentation applications. Since these programs originate from Internet locations rather than from company computers, business owners also avoid the consequent expense of updating software and hardware.

Providing Staffing

Business owners can expand their office staffs without incurring the costs associated with employee benefits like insurance and retirement packages through the help of virtual office assistants. HiredOffice.com supplies virtual assistants who help with word processing, data entry, scheduling and bookkeeping. Contracting for the use of virtual office assistants means that business owners pay only for the time spent directly on assignments. Owners are also spared the expense they would incur in training and evaluating permanent office staff.

The Reality of the Virtual Office

Business owners should not be led astray by the presence of the word virtual in the names of these services. Anita Campbell writes in her TrendTracker article that “virtual doesn’t mean the business isn’t for real. It just means all that heavy, expensive stuff won’t be sitting there eating money when not in use.” Virtual office service providers meet real needs and provide real services in a really efficient manner.

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