What is a virtual team?
The term “virtual team” or “virtual working” has been around for a while and refers to a situation where one, more, or even all the members of a team are geographically dispersed. The term remote working is sometimes used, but often in the context of a single individual who works remotely from the other team members.
Although virtual teams are often used for software development, they are successfully used for many types of work, and the same basic principles of set up and management apply to all of them. Virtual teams offer another way to create cost effective teams.
Why use virtual teams?
Project managers have several resourcing problems when organising a project. They include:
- access to timely and complete information from the customer
- access to the right people
- access to any necessary equipment
- access to the physical space and equipment to house a team
What using virtual teams can do is ease two of these key problems, access to people and space, by allowing you to use team members that do not have to work in the physical space that you team occupies. This allows you to use people who may not be otherwise available, bringing in valuable expertise and resource. It can allow you to bring on board people for specific tasks within the project, only paying for their work on that task.
Virtual teams can be used to offer a better work / life balance to employees, and at the same time reduce some of your office overheads. If your team members are spending an hour or more getting to work, that's typically 10 unproductive hours a week. This is time that is a waste for them, and for you.
The other key point is that virtual workers come with their own space and working environment. This can mean that a project can run using less permanent resources – less office space and less company computers.
Setting up virtual teams.
Over recent years the facilities available on computers, networks, and the internet, have improved dramatically to the point where communication and control within teams is often entirely based on these facilities, even when teams are based in the same building. So it can appear to be a relatively small step to create virtual teams.
The set up that you need to run virtual teams includes all the items you would normally need:
- A quality system that specifies how you do the work, the required inputs, outputs, and the way in which you test, document, and ensure quality as the project progresses.
- A project planning tool, and a project plan that is regularly updated and communicated to the teams.
- Appropriate requirements design and test documentation.
- Appropriate systems for logging issues and monitoring their status.
- Appropriate systems for version control and back up.
- Should you use non employees, you need to ensure the appropriate intellectual property safeguards are in place.
In addition there are some other items that you need for virtual teams.
- A server with suitable bandwidth for remote access.
- Virtual private network access to your server. This allows a remote worker to use all the above facilities on your server, via the internet, in a secure fashion.
- Good phone communications and conferencing between remote workers. This can often be done using various computer based services, such as Skype, which are either free, or very cheap.
- Often instant messaging is used as well as, or instead of emails. Using this technique can be helping in recording discussions. Tools such as Skype provide multi-user instant messaging conferences, as well as audio conferences, and one to one video calls.
- Desktop/ whiteboard sharing.
- Possibly consider PC based video conferencing. Most projects will manage quite well without this. But in a situation where there are not regular face to face meetings, this is probably a good addition to phone conferencing.
- It can be useful to have an Intranet with a project wiki, or some other information and file sharing mechanism, where team members can share information, tips, and news.
There are various ways of locating the people you need for your teams. The first port of call is your own work force. Are they people who would significantly benefit from a home based working arrangement? If so this could offer benefits to both them and you. If they were not travelling so much, they might be able to contribute more to the project. If they don't have long travelling hours, then they be more likely to stay with your company.
The next group of people to consider are those who you know. You may know them because they have worked for you in the past, perhaps as employees or contractors, or simply you may know of them by reputation.
If you are still looking, then its time to use the internet. One good possibility is to use technical networking sites to advertise the required task. The premier network for this is Linkedin. This network has many specialist groups that you can join. It is here that you can get your requirement out to a large number of the right sort of people, all over the world.
Another possibility is to hire people from outsourcing companies. There are many of these companies, all over the world, offering competitive rates, and a wide variety of experience. However you need to ensure that the people you get will work well with your team. They need to share the same approach to work and communication, and have good verbal and written language skills.
Managing virtual teams.
Effective management of teams is about good communication. Communication between the client and the team. Communication between the project manager and the team. Communication within the team. Now this is true for any project. However in virtual teams it becomes crucial, because people usually lack the informal communication mechanisms that just happen because people bump into each other on a regular basis.
Verbal communication is essential for team bonding – email can be so impersonal. But there is no substitute for written communication to ensure that questions are answered and a record kept of the answers. This can be via email, a fault logging system, or instant messaging.
When working remotely I almost always send queries by email rather than by picking up the phone (sometimes, if appropriate, creating a list for each day, then sending the queries off once per day). I then track that all questions have been appropriately answered. If the query requires discussion, then I phone to discuss.
Another key factor is that remote workers need to be informed when things change, as change they will. If items change that affect what they are doing, such as requirements, or reference documents, then they need to be informed at the time.
It is important to follow the processes that are defined for the project, and that all appropriate documents are produced and the required reviews done in a timely fashion. Its often a case of “a stitch in time saves nine”. One of the most effective design environments I have seen did not allow developers to go beyond requirements until they were reviewed and updated, but there were several senior reviewers, and the review could always be organised within a couple of days.
- If practical have regular face to face team meetings to allow discussion, information sharing, and team bonding. If people need to travel to these meetings, then I think once a week is too often – it takes too much time out. But there is no reason why the meetings shouldn't be conducted as video conferences. Audio conferences can be used too. But in that case it can be helpful if there is some occasional visual contact. However it should be stressed that many virtual teams function perfectly well without ever meeting, or using video conferencing.
- Drive tasks via the plan. People should know what they have to do and by when. It should be possible to evaluate whether they have done it.
- Keep the plan up to date and make it available to all.
- Do reviews promptly.
- Ensure project procedures and tools, such as fault logging and version control, are always used.
Alternatives to using virtual teams
There are various alternative solutions that include:
- Recruiting and building the team you need in house using permanent staff
- Using contractors
- Outsourcing the work
Each of these has advantages and drawbacks.
Using permanent staff involves the biggest long term commitment, and it may be difficult to get the right people in a timely fashion.
Using contractors is generally the preferred “quick fix” solution, but can be more expensive.
Outsourcing all or part of the work can be successful. However it does involve a significant amount of management, specification, and ongoing monitoring and communication, to ensure that you are getting what believe you need. There certainly have been cases where outsourcing companies do not meet expectations and their customers have seriously underestimated what they have to put into the arrangement in order to make it successful.
Virtual teams are part of the overall solution to setting up and running projects. They are not necessarily suitable for all projects. They may just be part of the solution, being combined with traditional teams, contractors, and outsourcing, as appropriate. But they can make a real contribution to effectiveness and achieving goals, and enable some things that could not otherwise happen.
Furthermore they are in many ways the direction in which we need to and can go. As communications and technology improve more and more, and there is increasing pressure on both the environment and on business costs, we need flexibility and efficiency. This is where virtual teams, set up and managed well, can make significant contributions.