Setting up a project with a virtual team requires a different set of communication skills, tactics and tools than starting a project that involves in-house employees.
At Apptension, the software house behind teamdeck, we work with remote employees as well. And we’re not talking about programmers located in nearby cities. Our team members live and work in different countries and time zones, including Japan and the UK.
We know the advantages and pains of working with people with whom you can’t simply meet in one room and talk about the project.
Or hang out after work to celebrate another successful sprint (which, BTW, is very important to build a close-knit team).
In this article we’re going to share with you how to:
- assemble a team
- set up the project
- establish the communication process
- choose the right toolbox
Before we jump into that, let’s quickly sum up what are the virtual teams and if it really is an emerging trend in recruiting and managing employees.
The rise of virtual teams
Virtual teams are the groups of employees working on the same project from different locations, communicating with each other via emails or messaging apps.
Working remotely is increasingly common amongst companies that rely on knowledge workers, who can work from any place, often using just a laptop and a decent Wi-Fi connection.
According to the official statistics mentioned by BBC, more than four million Britons worked from home in 2016. Remote work can spare costly overheads for people living in rural areas, who don’t want to commute or rent a flat in the city.
But an even more significant change to remote work was brought by digital nomads, for whom working from any place they want is much more about the lifestyle and the sense of freedom.
According to the Digital Nomad Survey, 52% of interviewees consider themselves ‘location independent’, while other 40% would like to be. Digital nomads like to work from home (67%), cafes (36%) and coworking spaces (33%), visiting even up to 5–10 countries a year (30% of respondents).
The general trend towards flexible work, including virtual teams, has been recognised in the World Economic Forum report ‘The Future of Jobs’. The authors point to the need of “redefining the boundary between one’s job and private life in the process”. As remote work may help employers to easier find and hire talented workers, and employees to live their lives more independently, there is one concern that has to be solved:
“The challenge for employers, individuals and governments alike is going to be to work out ways and means to ensure that the changing nature of work benefits everyone.”
Increasing accessibility of the Internet, cloud-based solutions for collaborative work, the rise of coworking spaces made working in virtual teams even easier. With the right tactics and tools managing those teams is not so difficult.
Read on to find out how to deal with virtual teams while managing a project.
Start from building a team
One of the cons of managing virtual teams is that it’s harder to turn a group of individuals who have never met each other, into a team.
Paradoxically, it is said that you should, if possible, gather the team together physically early on. Face-to-face meeting can help in building a team, getting to know each other, building trust and relationships.
If it’s not possible, don’t worry. Do your best to help your remote employees develop team spirit virtually, e.g. by creating chat groups that are meant to convey the “water-cooler moments”. There your employees can have their casual conversations, exchanging thoughts not necessarily related to the projects they run.
Since we’re using Slack for most of our daily communication, we’ve created the #internal channel where the casual conversations take place. Besides that, we encourage our employees to create their own channels, focused on the matters that interest them and then invite other, like-minded colleagues.
Working with remote teams, it’s very important to foster camaraderie amongst employees, so that they are more willing to work together, share their knowledge, and help each other developing a project.
Set up the project
A successful project launch depends on two things:
- Collecting as much information about the project as possible to fully understand its complexity, client’s expectations and business objectives.
- Passing these insights to your team and making sure that everyone understands what is required from them.
The better you’re able to do so, the easier it will be for you to deliver what’s expected from your team.
One of the main differences between starting a project with a virtual team compared to managing an in-house one is that you need to pay more attention to avoid micro-management.
Start from setting straightforward goals and project’s objectives. Make them clear to everyone involved in the process to avoid confusion and one-on-one questions later on. Use shared boards like Jira or Trello to assign tasks so all employees can see who’s responsible for what, and when.
While assigning tasks, take employee’ availability into account. Working with virtual teams, you need to keep in mind:
- different time-zones and how they can affect your communication
- national holidays and personal days off
- hourly availability — especially important when working with part-timers and freelancers
Having all of this in one, shared schedule will help you to maintain the proper project flow and to avoid delays caused by the absences of some team members, that haven’t been included in the workflow.
Set the communication process
Establishing a clear communication process from the very beginning is vital while working with remote teams.
As the majority of your communication will take place through emails and messaging apps, Wade Foster from Zapier says that while recruiting remote employees, it’s recommended to hire good writers. Good written communication skills of your employees will make it easier to avoid misunderstanding.
Leading the project, find the way to set a common meeting schedule with your team. Daily calls that include everyone involved in the project can help with understanding the current status: what’s done, what needs to be taken care of, and how to do this.
It will also make it easier for you to monitor the workflow.
For other calls, like project planning meeting or review sessions, client calls, etc., try to plan everything in advance and book meetings in your employees’ calendars. Keep in mind the time differences and give your teammates an advance notice.
One of the biggest challenges regarding communication with your virtual team is setting the ad hoc calls. Sometimes, when something urgent pops up, you may want to jump on a call ASAP, but with asynchronous communication it may not be possible. One way to solve it could be setting a time during the day when all your team members (or at least the majority of them) are available, and making those calls during these hours.
Decide on one messaging app that will be used by everyone. Slack, Hipchat, Google Hangouts or Skype — you name it. Just pick one and make sure that all employees use it to communicate with each other during the project.
Choose the right toolbox
The right toolbox is essential for running a remote team. As you can’t just physically gather together in one room and discuss the project, you need online tools enabling collaborative work to plan the assignments, schedule tasks and communicate.
Let me quickly introduce you to the tools that we use, which help us to manage over 50 employees, including remote ones, located in different locations and time zones.
For planning and assigning tasks to our employees we use Jira. This one tool lets us easily plan, track, and manage all of our projects.
Managing a virtual teams you want everyone to see tasks’ status within the workflow, the assigned person and the one responsible for reporting it. In Jira you can configure your workflow, which makes managing tasks on the boards even easier. Plus, everyone knows exactly what’s going on.
Team collaboration, like working on shared documents including meeting notes, project plans, product requirements, knowledge bases and documentations — for these we use Confluence.
Its integration with Jira makes it super easy for us to manage project-related resources. The ability to create shared documents connected to assigned tasks helps our employees to better contribute to the project, limiting the questions about its scope.
Bitbucket is a version control system by Atlassian. Our programmers use it to work together on a project from any location and time zone. It allows collaborative work on the quality of code through peer code reviews.
For all our daily communication we use Slack. Here we can have one-on-one conversations, group chats and open or private channels for all kinds of discussions. Additionally, the great number of add-ons and bots makes it even more tailored to our teams’s needs.
For example, as we use Officevibe for employee surveys, we added its Slack bot which starts conversations in one-on-one conversations about their wellbeing, workload or office relations, and then sending users to polls and questionnaires.
Last but not least, we use teamdeck for resource scheduling, time tracking and leave management. With it, we can quickly check employee’s availability, book them on the projects and track how many hours have they spent working on them.
Teamdeck makes it easier to work with virtual teams, part-timers and freelancers, too. Due to the scheduling calendar project managers have a quick and easy access to employees’ bookings, vacations, hourly availability, and more, which, in turn, increases team visibility, resulting in more efficient resource allocation.
Running a virtual team relies on the communication skills, tactics and tools you use.
As you’re mostly not able to meet in person to discuss the project, its objectives and issues, the way you do it online will make or break it.
Using online tools for collaborative work and aligning it with the right processes and transparency will help you to achieve your goals and to deliver the project as expected. Find the best ones for you, onboard your team and make the most out of your talented employees spread across the globe.
Do you have any experience working with virtual teams? Share it with us in the comments.