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Team meetings used to be simple. Put a date on the calendar, send out a memo, and order sandwiches. By the end of lunch, everybody would be up-to-speed on what the rest of the team was up to, and they would all head back to work, ready to move forward in synch.

But globalization, new technology, cost-cutting and the need for increasingly specialized skill sets are changing the game. In recent years, more companies have started to hire remotely or to assemble teams of employees who work in different locations but are expected to collaborate on a single project.

As a result, you may be required to manage a “virtual” team: a team that rarely — or never — meets face to face. Which presents you with a host of challenges:

  • How can you communicate with and coordinate these remote team members?
  • How do you keep everybody on the same page?
  • How can you form a cohesive team from distinct individuals, working in isolation from you and one another, possibly in different cultural settings or time zones?

Our friends the ants have an interesting solution to the problem of remote management: pheromones. They use these natural chemical messengers, emitted through their antennae, to deliver instructions that are instantly understood by entire colonies of their colleagues, sometimes over long distances. They coordinate far-flung teammates by sense of smell.

Unfortunately, we are not skilled like ants in the deployment of pheromones–but we have other, similarly sophisticated tools at our disposal. And if the tiny ant can manage an enormous colony without the benefit of frequent team meetings in a corporate conference room, so can you! Here are 10 tips and ideas for managing your virtual team.

  1. Look for people who are self-motivated, disciplinedand who communicate well in writing. Assemble your team carefully. Look for people who are self-motivated, disciplined and who communicate well in writing. Matching tasks to personalities and skill sets is even more important when your team members will be asked to function independently; try to give the communication-intensive tasks to the extroverts on the team, while introverts might do well with research and other solo projects. Consider locations as well, and try to establish a work process that flows from east to west, so that all members of the team may work comfortably in their own time zones.
  2. Set realistic deadlines. Distance inevitably complicates projects, especially when people are spread across time zones. You may be less familiar with the schedules of employees or colleagues who work remotely; when setting project timelines, give all team members time to review and respond before committing to deadlines.
  3. Have a strong technology game plan. Use technology to create a “virtual office” for your virtual team. Cloud- or Internet-based vehicles for storing and sharing files, documents and contacts, and systems for communicating securely and conveniently, will make it easier for your team to collaborate. Evaluate your tech options strategically. Once you’ve selected your tools, make sure all team members have the proper training and equipment. Finally, ensure you have troubleshooting experts available at all times — so minor snafus don’t turn into crises.
  4. Establish regular communications processes. Team meetings, whether conducted in person or via teleconferencing, videoconferencing or Skype, are a must. But regular individual reporting is crucial as well. Consider asking each team member to report progress to you in writing weekly, and then summarize and share that information in a team-wide message or newsletter. This will ensure that everyone feels accountable and knows that his or her progress is seen by colleagues. It will also help them to keep pace with one another and coordinate their efforts.
  5. Be available. Nothing breeds discontent among remote employees quicker than a sense of isolation. Try not to let their calls go to voicemail, and when they do, call back as soon as possible. Respond promptly to e-mails. Speed of response is nearly as important as the content of your response in helping people who are working independently feel like part of a team.
  6. Create a “virtual hallway.” In a physical workplace, people meet in the hall, cafeteria or lobby and share both pleasantries and information. These informal communications enhance trust and play an important role in building a sense of teamwork and shared purpose. You can encourage that kind of exchange by being a little spontaneous yourself. Pick up the phone and call a team member once in a while, rather than emailing them. While you’re on the phone, allow yourself to chat a little. Then encourage him or her to call another team member for a contact or a piece of information. Casual conversations enhance the bonds that will help your team cohere and improve its performance.
  7. Establish communication guidelines. Discourage sarcasm and teasing in distance interactions, as these can easily be misinterpreted when facial cues or knowledge of personalities are lacking. Handle sensitive issues or conflict by phone when you can’t do it in person; never use email in these situations. Request that team members do the same.
  8. Be flexible. Studies show that virtual team members tend to work beyond normal business hours, both to fulfill their responsibilities and to communicate with team members in other time zones. Show them a reciprocal flexibility by allowing time off during working hours or meeting other individual needs, as long as goals are met.
  9. Give feedback. People who are working remotely don’t get informal feedback on their work product, so you need to be deliberate in letting them know what they are doing well and what needs improvement. Don’t let a good job go unremarked — and don’t wait for the right moment to deliver constructive criticism.
  10. Celebrate together. The end of a project can be a letdown when there is no opportunity to slap a partner on the back or simply share a smile. Try a virtual reward ceremony: send each team member a gift to mark the group’s success, and schedule a videoconference when they will all open their gifts at once.

Follow these tips and your team will be better coordinated than an army of ants. And they won’t even have to use their antennae.

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