7 Ways to Build Your Best Virtual Team

by Ruth Klein on October 9, 2010

As companies add more virtual teams of off-site workers to their rolls, their mistakes are becoming expensive lessons that other companies can avoid. And their successes are evolving into a blueprint for the most cost-effective use of virtual teams of workers.

One Telework Coalition survey of employers cited the advantage of having virtual employees who, because the virtual team system already was established, were able to “return” to work immediately following the 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina tragedies.

Because they are contract workers or available as just-in-time staff, there also is the obvious cost-savings of not having to absorb the cost of medical benefits, paid time off and traditional office overhead expenses. Most virtual workers today come equipped with their own laptops, high-speed Internet access, cell phones and other essentials.

IBM’s general manager of Lotus software, Mike Rhodin, predicted at the U.S. VoiceCon conference in March 2008 that the virtual workplace will become the rule in coming years. Higher transportation costs and efforts to promote “green” businesses will encourage new work-at-home models.

What does that mean for businesses considering outsourcing work to “virtual” workforces? There is a larger and fast-growing pool of virtual assistants who can prove their worth with samples of work already accomplished for other clients.

Studies also show productivity is higher, on average, among virtual workers who don’t have to engage in office commutes becoming longer each year. Plus, they can focus on the task at hand, rather than waste project time at on-site meetings.

Three new trends will fuel continued growth in virtual workforces.

  1. Higher transportation costs are making working from home more attractive.
  2. Personal technology costs have lessened, making it more affordable to have a laptop, Internet access, email and cell phones for 24/7 availability.
  3. Plus, Baby Boomer and Generation X demographics are working to fueling virtual worker growth. The emerging Generation X demographic (late 20s to 40s) is more independent than earlier generations and less likely to see one 9-5 job as a career goal in the face of continued layoffs, disappearing pensions and the higher number of workers changing jobs often. At the same time, more aging Baby Boomers without pensions are making themselves available as virtual team members.

Here Are Seven Ways to Build Your Best Virtual Team

1. Build Your Virtual Team Incrementally. If you are starting from scratch, ask a “virtual” team member for recommendations to create a system founded in part by telecommuters who already know each other and are used to working together. Ask for examples of past results from working together on projects before you make your decision.

2. Create an Online Office Cooler. The advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather set up Truffles, an online resource for virtual team members to share ideas, get to know each other, and also to use the “office cooler” to come together during tight deadlines to troubleshoot and speed completion times. You can set up your own blog for your virtual team to share ideas. Continually monitor that blog as a means to make more productive use of your virtual workforce.

3. Don’t Hover. If you’re a micro-manager, appoint a more democratic subordinate to oversee your virtual team. The most successful telecommuters inherently are highly independent and will view a constant barrage of cell phone calls and e-mails an intrusion on their ability to focus on getting the job done. Consider naming a veteran virtual worker with more experience and personal knowledge of virtual team psychology as your subordinate to oversee the team.

4. Be Flexible. If you or your designated subordinate finds that a virtual team member is not performing well without constant supervision, consider replacing that worker. If a virtual team member is acting bored, first push the edge of the envelope with a more challenging assignment that might benefit you more than immediately replacing a team member who may just be in need of the stimulation of a more challenging role.

5. Encourage Office Cooler Friendships. Online conversations can seem like a frivolous waste of time to traditional employers who demand a work-only focus, but conversations about outside interests and skills can trigger innovation when it relates back to the company. BP encouraged off-topic conversations, and the interest expressed by environmentally minded staff gave BP a jump ahead of other energy companies in the now popular strategy to “go green” with marketing strategies. Again, you can create a “topic” based blog that encourages your virtual team members to have off-topic conversations.

6. Consider Virtual Interns. Virtual interns are becoming more popular, as more computer savvy college students make themselves available for virtual assignments in their fields of study. An advantage is that you can shop the country instead of your local college for a free or low-pay intern, and another is that you will have more information on how a potential on-site employee is likely to perform on the job (and perform with your existing staff) before making the hire.

7. Think local. If you are just venturing into creating a virtual team, or are more comfortable with having virtual team members who can meet with you at your place of business, think locally when hiring. Even some of the largest companies are turning to www.craigslist.org to post ads for virtual team members locally. If you’re in search of a graphic design, marketing, public relations, writing or editing pro, also consider www.journalismjobs.com. With so much of today’s workforce telecommuting or taking on part-time jobs from fully equipped home offices, you might be surprised at the range of talent available in your city.

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