Making virtual teams work for you

Whether you’re looking for skills you can’t find locally, want to reduce the number of people in-office, need to expedite a project, or simply have some team members who might be better suited to working remotely, creating a virtual team may be the solution. But ensuring the efficacy and sustainability of virtual staff means getting the basics right from the outset.

The right virtual team starts with the right real people

When Digiata was looking to expand its developer shop it struggled to find the right talent locally. Adding remote developers looked to be the answer, but the company wanted to retain its hands-on approach, so it used an app that mimics an actual office. Team members log into the virtual office from the app and can see who else is logged in, communicate with one another and collaborate in virtual meeting rooms.

But, like a real team, the virtual one only works because it has the right people in it. People who can do the job required of them, have the discipline to work independently, and are sufficiently good communicators that any problems are dealt with immediately, rather than allowing them to hamper progress.

When interviewing for a virtual role, companies need to identify the unique criteria they’re after and find a way to measure applicants’ aptitude for them. Digiata’s initial interview screening process employs a multiple-choice test that can whittle down a large number of candidates to a promising few. This is followed by an online test of technical aptitude that is assessed by a human and which serves to identify and rank those candidates with the most suitable set of technical skills.

Candidates who make it through the first two rounds are then interviewed over Skype. This allows Digiata to assess soft skills like communication and comprehension – essential attributes for successful virtual work, whether alone or in a team.

Process drives productivity

While self-discipline is a crucial character trait for any virtual worker, it’s difficult to test for. Instead, Digiata’s output-driven process for virtual teams involves multiple, minor milestones and clear instructions. Small pieces of work are measured constantly, ensuring team leaders and their teams know precisely what is meant to be done when. If milestones are missed, team leaders know there’s a problem.

Projects are specified in sufficient detail that any coder on the team can work on a piece of the project at any time, and tasks are listed in order of priority – so there’s no questions as to which take precedence – with time estimates for how long each task should take to complete.

Team members are offered constant feedback and each task is assessed to ensure any problems are picked up fast and can be corrected or mitigated in short order. This can mean only hours of productive time are lost, rather than days, and tasks further down the list aren’t adversely affected should earlier ones prove problematic.

Everyone can ask anyone anything

This approach doesn’t merely ensure efficiency, it ensures accountability and empowers employees to raise issues as they encounter them, knowing support and feedback are close at hand. By keeping project tasks transparent and ensuring frequent feedback cycles it also makes it easy for people to move tasks around or adjust the order of them, which offers agility and responsiveness.

Ensuring work is checked in small increments and feedback offered on it removes potential roadblocks, and crucially, potential excuses. The ability for anyone on a team to talk to anyone else at any time, means any technical challenges or gaps in a particular team member’s knowledge or ability can be rapidly identified and filled.

Though oversight and feedback are necessary, virtual teams tend to benefit from high levels of autonomy. Focusing on the end result of each task rather than the steps taken to get there leaves team members feeling like their abilities are valued and respected and frees up those offering feedback to focus on the bigger picture.

This approach also means virtual teams can have higher availability then real-world ones. With team members working across time zones it’s possible to get more done in a day than when all members are only being productive for the same eight-hour window.

However, there must be sufficient overlapping time to ensure team members can communicate with one another. For Digiata, that means ensuring four overlapping hours out of eight.

Getting started

How do you start moving to virtual employees or teams? Start with an existing position in your company that could work as a virtual one. Try it for a few days a week, then a full week, then a month. If it works, see which other positions could benefit from virtualisation. If it doesn’t, don’t try to force it. The goal is to bolster productivity and streamline processes not complicate them and introduce new obstacles.

Finally, it’s important that virtual employees enjoy their work, are given responsibility, and feel happy when they deliver results. Ultimately, an awful remote job is still an awful job.