4 Potential Traps and Many Tips for Managing Your Virtual Workforce

by Guest Author on December 10, 2012

There are many advantages of tapping into the growing world of virtual staffing by hiring freelance professionals on an as-needed basis.  Virtual professionals can work from anywhere in the world.  In their business advice book Rework, 37Signals owners Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson put it, “It’s crazy not to hire the best people just because they live far away.” So, perhaps you have decided to try hiring virtual professional services and are wondering – is it really as easy to manage someone from across the world as across the room?

The answer is yes – and no.  With today’s widely available communications and productivity applications, you can communicate clearly and share files easily whether your staff is 3 steps or 3000 miles away.  But there are some actions you need to take to ensure potential traps caused by distance, culture and language are avoided.  Rest assured – following these tips will make you a better manager whether your team is in the same building or scattered throughout the world.  In fact, a study published by the Sloan Management Review showed that when well-managed, teams separated by large distances actually performed at a higher level than many separated only by a floor within the same building.  It all depends on what you do to foster communication, understanding and trust.

Traps and Tips to Prevent Getting Caught in Them

  • Trap: Distributed teams don’t have natural opportunities for unscheduled communications and small talk that help build relationships, share information and get informal assistance.
    • Tip:  Build time into scheduled meetings to intentionally share problems, brainstorm solutions and engage in small talk.
    • Tip:  Encourage sharing of personal information and help everyone get to know each other.
    • Tip:  Provide and encourage the use of chat or instant message applications.
    • Tip:  Invest time and focus to work on the team process as well as the actual work.
  • Trap: Widely dispersed time zones slow down communications.
    • Tip:  Set and follow shared procedures for determining what process to use for communicating and responding in different situations.
    • Tip: Include in messages information about how urgent and what the expectations are for responding.
    • Tip: Have regularly scheduled real-time communications.  Vary the time so the burden of attending meetings outside the regular work day is shared by all.
    • Tip:  Find and use reliable technology tools to avoid technical glitches in communication.
  • Trap:  Communications in non-native languages are more likely to generate misunderstanding.
    • Tip:  Consciously use simple language and avoid slang.
    • Tip:  Speak slowly and check frequently for understanding.
    • Tip:  Follow up verbal instructions with clearly written summaries
  • Trap:  Differing cultures can create confusion about etiquette, work processes and expectations.
    • Tip:  Educate yourself and your team about the cultures represented on the team.
    • Tip:  Encourage discussion of cultural differences and how they might impact the work of the team.
    • Tip:  Intentionally learn, value and leverage the differences among team members.
    • Tip:  Discuss, decide upon and be consistent about clear expectations for work processes and results.
    • Tip:  Find and share good process technology tools.

In the Sloan Management Review study, researchers found that teams scattered throughout a single building struggled to perform together because they did not recognize that any team not co-located needed to address the special needs caused by separation.  Because the challenges are obvious in teams separated by wide distances, languages and cultures, leaders knew they needed to put in place deliberate processes and activities to build teamwork, which resulted in success.  You can do the same.

About the Author
Sandra LewisSandra Lewis is the Founder and CEO of www.worldwide101.com, a professional virtual professional services company, which provides Admin and Customer Service for companies worldwide. Born and raised in France, Sandra has travelled extensively as a Project Manager to Asia, Australia, North America and in various parts of both Eastern and Western Europe. During her career she has worked as Operations Manager for companies such as Regus and BuroServices, with a focus on supporting small businesses to be effective as they scale. Setting an example of the efficiencies gained working virtually, she manages her entire team on 4 continents, on a virtual basis. Find Sandra on Facebook or Twitter.




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