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Working in virtual teams


More and more businesses are discovering the power of virtual teams – teams where members come together for a specific task and may be geographically distant but use cloud based technology to collaborate and work together as well as more traditional conference calls and good old fashioned email. There are some great benefits from working in this way – you can save on the time, expense and overheads needed to hold  face to face meetings and you can work with contractors and colleagues all over the world tapping into new skills and expertise you don’t have in-house.

Benefits
If you haven’t discovered the benefits of virtual teams yet, you may be missing out. If you have an understanding of how these kinds of teams can work and can manage them well, then your business can tap into quite literally a world of talent, not just talent you find locally or through your own networks.  Virtual teams allow businesses to outsource skills and talents – everything from typesetting to data and just about anything you can think of in between. To bring a virtual team together to deliver a project allows you to source skills and talents remotely, from labour markets that may be much cheaper than those at home.

Risks
When you’re hiring people you’ve never met you need to be sure they can do what they say they are going to do, do it well and do it on time. Use your networks to the max, explore LinkedIn and other networking sites to dig out references, testimonials and to help you understand the skill set and experience you believe yourself to be buying. 

For the people working this way virtual teams can be really successful, effective, efficient and fun, but they can also be alienating, difficult to manage and even emotionally testing, and their success or failure will depend largely on your own project management skills. If you’re not used to setting up and delivering work with contractors locally, starting with a virtual team spread across the globe may be tricky but not impossible if you follow some straightforward advice.

Your project
The first thing to really get clear on is what is your project? What are you setting out to achieve, what skills do you need to deliver it and what are the timescales? Clarity at the outset will make or break the success of your team.  Work out what the project will deliver, by when and be as specific as you can be –eg.  if you are working on a business strategy for example or some market research what will the finished product look like? How long will the report be and what will it cover? Write out a brief for the project that sets out roles and responsibilities, timescales and resources available. Work out what parts of your project depends on other parts being complete – for examples if you are building a website the content and the pictures or illustrations are contingent on the navigation and page layout for the site.

Roles
What skills do you need?  This is where the individual team members are identified. With a global marketplace for talent available to everyone now through contractor sites like guru.com, peopleperhour.com and other specialist sites for professionals, the world really is your oyster. LinkedIn is also a good place to look for talent and hire contractors, often alerting fellow group members to your needs on a discussion board will help you find someone who’s exactly right for the work you need to be done.

What tools can help you?
There are now plenty of free, easy to use and fast to load workspaces for teams to work in. Google Apps is a great place to start, with their free service offering access for up to ten members in your workspace and giving you a chunky 5Mb of storage space for your files. And if you’ve set it up on a project specific domain, you can give everyone their own email for the project too.

Other workspaces to consider include the increasingly sophisticated Central Desktop, which is a pure Software as Service offering that allows teams to collaborate, discuss their work and deliver projects in an easy to use, secure and well supported cloud based environment.   

For online meetings showing presentations (webinars) use WebEx and GoToMeeting which both have easy to use conference calling built in, slideshare is a social media presentation platform, that allows you to share your presentations. For conference calling alone, there are too many offers to list, but try the extremely easy and flexible pow wow now which couldn’t be simpler or easier to pay for.

Keep your team talking and on track
Virtual teams are different to teams that meet up face to face – be smart and pay attention to communication between team members –

- Make sure everyone gets chance to introduce themselves – including what they’ve been contracted for, how much time they are contracted for and any times that they aren’t available to the team

- Make sure meeting times are agreed by everyone and work well across time zones

- Make sure any new contractors to an established team feel welcome and are allowed to get on with their work without undue interference or criticism

- Give time in every team meeting for some chat – people don’t know each other and their phone or online time is the only time they get to suss each other out – it’s not wasting time it’s building good relationships!

- Don’t forget to find a way to celebrate when the job’s done, have a meeting just to say ‘thanks  everyone’ or better still, try and have a post project review – give everyone chance to say what worked and didn’t work about the project so you can all do better next time.

Best of luck!

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