Building and managing virtual teams

I constantly get the same question, “How do you manage a virtual team and actually get stuff done.” At Wildbit, each of the 10 team members work from home or a coworking environment. We’re spread out across four countries and many timezones. With such separation, we still manage to get a lot done and enjoy our work.

Before writing this article, I had not given much thought to exactly how we work in a virtual environment. My first answer was simply practice and many mistakes. Although, the knowledge gained from those mistakes can be narrowed down to three main ingredients: The people on the team, the process that drives the team, and clear communication.

The people

Skip the resumes

You can have a good process and great tools, but it all starts with a team who can work well together. I have been running Wildbit for almost eight years. In that time, I learned to not hire just based on need or skill set, but to hire based on interests, personality, and a motivation to constantly improve. Hiring virtually makes this much harder. You can’t sit down and feel out a person or get to know them, you need to base their personality and passion other factors. For instance, we usually ask people what books they read, blogs they follow, or people they look up to in the industry. This helps us learn about their interests, but can also demonstrate their passion and dedication to their work. If people take time to write a blog, it tells me they are confident in their ideas and willing to work on their own. The key is to find people who love what they do, then provide the environment for them to express it.

Plan for mistakes

If you’re planning to hire someone remotely, be prepared for mistakes. Most people would love to work from home, but most people are also not cut out for it. We’ve had situations where very talented team members did not work out. Not due to their skills or interest, but their inability to work from home without supervision. Once this is realized, the process of trying to supervise and recover can be toxic. The manager tries to improve the situation while the employee has a constant feeling of failure. In these scenarios it’s very important to trust your gut and move on. In a virtual team, always make sure to plan for these mistakes and accept delays and cost.

Listen and learn

There is a psychological element to running virtual teams that is much different from the physical environment. Instead of reading body language, we have to pay close attention to habits and read between the lines. I can quickly notice from an IM conversation when someone is not motivated or is losing interest. Even the smallest things like emoticons, punctuation, and frequency of participation can reveal a lot. The trick is to know each person, their usual habits, and when they start changing those habits. It’s pretty easy for someone to hide mistakes or poor productivity. By encouraging open and honest communication, the issues are most likely to surface sooner.

The process

If you hire the right people who enjoy what they do, most of the painful management issues go away. At the same time, a solid process is still necessary to improve productivity. A specific process should always be tailored to the needs of your company, but I can give some insight on what works for Wildbit.

Focus on results, not time

We’re a software company, so our process is specific. We work strictly in weekly iterations. Each week, each person is dedicated to one project. This clarifies communication across the team, sets expectations, and maintains focus. Everyone on the team always know what each person is working on, as well as our clients.

Weekly iterations also help us avoid hour tracking and baby sitting. Each week is planned based on a desired outcome, not the number of hours worked. This avoids tracking and posting hours and enables us to deliver results. At the end of the week, it is clear to everyone on the team if the expected results were delivered.

Schedules matter

A primary advantage to working remotely is a flexible schedule. While we don’t have rigid daily working hours, it is still important that each person has a consistent schedule. We try to have a range of time when each person will be available, with a plus or minus flexibility. This sets clear expectations across the team with some leniency to start work when the person is ready. In regards to leadership, a schedule also makes it clear when someone is slacking off. While we don’t use IM for constant conversation, it still provides a clear status of when someone arrives or leaves each day.

Coworking: Working alone, together

Unless you have the right office space at home, it can get really distracting. The question always comes up on whether an office away from home makes sense. My usual answer is that it depends on the person. Over the years, we have tried it all. The important thing is that each person has the flexibility to work where they are most productive and comfortable. With so many people working remotely these days, the concept of coworking has really caught on. I work at Independents Hall in Philadelphia, which provides a great balance between working at home and working in an office. As more of these spaces open, the rest of our team will be sure to jump on board.

Clear communication

With the right people and the right process, a solid communication process brings it all together. While there are plenty of tools to assist in communication, the real value is in setting communication guidelines. Nothing is more distracting than the Internet (I hate you Twitter). By focusing on communication tools first, it just feeds the fire. Here are some of our guidelines.

Daily meetings

The biggest disadvantage to a virtual team is not having the time to hang out. In the usual workplace, a lot of great ideas happen through daily chatter or over lunch. To emulate this environment, we setup very short meetings each morning in Campfire. It helps start the day, mess around, and catch up before we focus on work.

Kill the IM distration

Instant Messages do a great job of killing focus. Nothing is worse than tasks assigned over IM or someone distracting you in the middle of a thought. Over time, we learned how to minimize IM discussion. By not using IM, we are forced to use tools that encourage structured team discussion. We use Basecamp to post ideas or questions to the team, which can be answered at any time. We use Campfire to chat as a group, which keeps a record for future use. And we use FogBugz to assign and organize tasks and iterations. We’ve also used Twitter to notify each other about the status of a task or situation.

Get to know each other

It’s not always about business. Nothing helps a team gel more than learning about each others personal lives. It’s easier when you work in the same office, but in a virtual team you need to make time for it. We’ve celebrate with shots of vodka in Campfire. We send each other pictures of our home offices. We remember birthdays or occasions and announce them to the team. The personal discussions are always overlooked, so be sure to make the time.

It’s not all virtual. No matter what, you always need some face time. There’s nothing better than a team retreat to hang out with the team, celebrate success, and focus on strategy. Our last retreat was in Cyprus, and it was well worth it. When planning a retreat make sure that most of the time is casual. It’s a time to relax and get to know each other, rather than pushing business needs. The strategic conversations will happen naturally.

People, Process, Communication

Our experience working remotely is just one example. It’s important to adjust based on the needs and structure of your team. As I said, it all starts with the right people. With a great team that really strives for quality, the rest just happens. The concepts and process that Wildbit has created over the years has come from each person on the team, instead of a single manager or leader.

I’m very interested in hearing ideas or strategies that have worked for other teams. If you have any thoughts or questions, post a comment and I will reply.

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Comments

4 comments on “Building and managing virtual teams

  1. Pingback: Wildbit » A great 2009 and even better 2010 - Thoughts on building web apps, businesses, and virtual teams

  2. Great, great, great thoughts here, Chris. Using daily campfire scrum meetings is on my short list of things to implement at elias. Currently we manage our virtual team of 3 via weekly conference calls, annual conferences onsite in the states (we call them EGGs… elias global get-togethers), and with software tools like basecamp, campfire, and beanstalk.

  3. Was just listening to your interview on Mixergy. I have a remote team with around 45 people in 9 countries working from home, and have learned a lot about managing remote staff over the last few years. I can identify with a lot of what you are saying. For me the biggest potential issue with working remotely is the potential for isolation. However it depends on the individual person and their situation, how many people they have at home.

    I’m going to check out using campfire instead of Skype for chat. I’m building software for managing remote teams (www.timedoctor.com) and one thing I have noticed using this software on my own team is that team members are spending a lot of time on Skype each week (we have a feature for recording how much time is spend on different applications and web sites), so perhaps Campfire is a better alternative.