The world of business and teamwork has changed. Today, teams are spread across different countries and time zones, and are still expected to work in harmony and function as fully operational teams with common goals and outcomes.

I work with virtual teams around the world, helping them come together to operate as fully functioning operational units. Therefore, I know that managing a virtual team is not easy.

Rob, a manager of a large virtual production team from one of the world’s largest information technology (IT) companies, has a team spread across the United States, Singapore, Australia, India and the United Kingdom.

A typical IT guy, Rob knew everything about the programs and systems he worked with but struggled with people, especially when his team was spread so far apart. He directed the work flow and as one time zone shut down, the work was passed on to the next team in the next time zone.

With Rob, I quickly identified the key issue with his disparate team. Every person knew exactly how he thought the work should be delivered and went about implementing it his way. Often, by the time the work had rotated around the world, the current project had shifted focus slightly.

I met with Rob initially over the phone and followed up with some face-to-face meetings, but mostly virtual meetings after that. I wanted him to get his team to work and I wanted to work with him virtually to help him understand that he didn’t need to be in the same room as the other person to solve problems, brainstorm, and make and agree to plans.

I used a variety of tools, which are available to any modern manager today: the telephone, e-mail and communicating through the Internet via Skype, a program that allows users anywhere in the world to talk for free for an unlimited time. All I needed was a wireless Internet connection and I was in business.

Here is what Rob and his team agreed to do:

Have a shared vision and common goals

The first step in any virtual team is to make sure all the members have the same vision for the project they are working on. Choose a time of day for all in the team to meet virtually and have a teleconference either on traditional phone lines, using a video link if your organisation has that technology or Skype.

This will mean an early start for some and perhaps a late finish for others, but it’s vital that all are present for this meeting at least.

The next step is that the whole team must agree on the goals for the project, responsibilities it must take on and deadlines to adhere to. If there are differences of opinion, it is up to the manager to facilitate discussion or simply take charge and set the goals for the team.

Starting out with the whole team around the virtual table, discussing the project and how the work is to be delivered is critical. Next, assign sub-goals and agree how work will be delivered in each time zone and how updates will be passed between time zones. 

Have good communication

Communication is the make or break factor in delivering the project on time. Plan to have a handover at the start and end of each time zone team taking over. Each person in the team needs to know what has gone on before so he knows where to go next. Encourage communication by phone, e-mail, Skype or whatever works best in your organisation. Communication is vital.

As team leader, it is up to you to keep up-to-date with what is happening in each of your outposts. Set a time each week to meet virtually, get regular written update reports and hold people accountable, rewarding those who produce good work and counselling poor performers.

The role of the manager does not change just because he resides in a different office, time zone or country.

Have the right person in the right job

The final piece in the puzzle is to make sure that each team member is working to his strength, where possible. The best part about having virtual teams is that you can assign work based on skill sets and juggle that to suit the strengths you have within the team.

If you apply the three-step model, you too can have a great performing team. All it takes is time, effort and commitment.