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  • Donna Lim

Is Your Virtual Team Operating Smoothly?

Note from Larissa for Donna… With many teams going online, there is a surplus of advice directed at business owners about managing their virtual teams. It can be confusing to understand what advice is usable, and what advice is too niche to be relevant. I want to provide business owners with a simple checklist of tools and implementation strategies that are simple and universally applicable.

In the last 3 years its become almost a novelty to find a small business that doesn’t employ at least one online member. In the B2B sector, it’s becoming increasingly convenient to hire employees that don’t need to be relocated. We can hire talent around the world relatively painlessly. But, just because we can, that doesn’t mean that's always the most effective decision. There are several small business owners who employ virtual members but have no idea how to effectively utilize them. Anecdotally, I worked for a company for a period of 6 months as a virtual employee. I was paid on a weekly basis, but I was assigned less than 1 hour per day of actual work. The issue was clear, my employer understood his industry, but he didn’t ask himself a few essential questions.

"Do I have a system to keep track of what my team is doing?

"Do I have the necessary tools to communicate with my team?"

"How do I build a culture of accountability and cooperation?"

If my employer had asked these questions, then it would have been easy to see that I wasn’t a healthy part of his business. This isn’t to talk badly about myself, but to illustrate that managing a virtual team is a skill that takes a lot of practice. In another instance, I recently heard a story of a company that lost a client because their employee inadvertently leaked information to another client. It was a case of not separating internal communication from the communication that happens between our team and clients. We want to avoid those issues, and I believe there is no better place to learn than the beginning. There are two concepts we need to understand: The Tools & The Implementation. Let’s talk about the tools first:

  1. Do I have a tool where my team can communicate internally? Instant messaging apps may have once seemed juvenile, but they have become a staple product of every successful virtual team. We shouldn’t have a situation where a client gets confused because of a question we directed to our team members.

  2. Do I have a file sharing solution? Going back to my former employee for a moment here; there was a month long period where sending a file folder between myself and my employer took three different applications. While this was technically cheaper, we invited multiple security risks, and in the long run, we lost more money than we saved on account of the lost efficiency.

  3. Can I easily call my team? I went through a year of university during the pandemic, and that made me certain of one thing: Every organization needs a system like Zoom. Calls are simply faster and more focused than both instant messaging and emails, and honestly? Sometimes we just need a reminder that there is a human on the other side of the screen.

  4. How would I assign my team a task? Or give them a deadline? Emailed calendar invites are clunky and inefficient. Team management solutions like Avana, Mango, Canopy, ClientHub, and others are needed to give clear instructions to our team. These solutions also allow our team to communicate with us how much work they have completed at a glance.

For the aforementioned companies, there was a definite need for tools like that to be implemented. However, just having those tools isn’t necessarily enough, and we should have a plan to use them. Remembering the Profit First core tenets, if we are adding expensive solutions without using them, then we are cutting into our own profit line, and that should be unacceptable. To address that issue, I would recommend a top-down approach. We can’t expect our team to use these tools if we don’t use them. Consider the following: If you were the employee of a woman who pays for Avana premium, but always assigns you tasks through email... would you use Avana at all? It’s likely that you would try, but after a few weeks, it would become readily apparent that it’s not necessary. Now, our employer is paying for a service that isn’t being used. For this reason, I would only suggest using a tool if you are comfortable using it yourself.

Now that our top level foundation is set, we should squeeze everything we can out of our tools. I would suggest creating several routines that our employees must follow to communicate the following things to us:

What has been done, and what still needs to be done?

What work can go to quality control?

Who needs more help, and who needs more work?

I would suggest creating a ‘daily stand-up' to essentially have your team report on those three questions. At first, having a daily communication schedule may seem like micromanaging, but I would posit that micromanagement is more of a requirement with a virtual team. As humans, we are blind to what isn’t in front of us, and if our team isn’t communicating a problem, then it will continue to grow just out of our sight. Incidentally, I’m aware that Sooter Consulting does both a daily stand-up and a bi-weekly video call to help Donna understand whats happening in her company. Having known Donna for a few years now, I can safely say that after she implemented this process in her own business, the stress virtually melted off of her.

Thankfully, there are a lot of business owners that are in a similar situation with regards to managing virtual teams. There is a lot of help out there if we need it, and there are plenty of examples of avoidable mistakes. As a new business medium, it’s clear that all of us are going to make a few silly mistakes in managing our virtual team. However, if we have the proper tools and the correct routines, then it becomes far easier to solve any issues that arise.

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