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5 secrets to managing a virtual team

3 min read


Yael Zofi is founder and CEO of human capital consulting firm AIM Strategies and author of the new book “A Manager’s Guide to Virtual Teams.” Her organization development work focuses on helping leaders and their teams become more successful through organizational alignment. She has created many team-based alignment tools, facilitated global team strategy retreats, designed international talent management programs and facilitated merger integrations with three global organizations.

As a virtual manager, how can you tell if someone is really working? When a team member continually pushes back deadlines, are the reasons valid? How long does it take to detect someone who is not fulfilling his or her responsibilities in a virtual environment? What do you do if someone stops responding to your e-mails and phone calls, and you cannot stop by his or her desk? Is this team member lost, missing or just avoiding you?

Many clients tell me that the virtual environment makes it easier for team members to hide. Some members may take advantage of the lack of daily oversight and get “lost” — hence the phrase “lost riders.” The first clue is that deadlines are continually pushed back, and then deliverables aren’t produced for days, weeks or months.

The critical time to notice situations that could lead to potential issues is during the early phase of a new project or when a new member joins the team. And when you do notice a problem, follow these helpful tips to resolve them.

Tips for handling lost riders:

  • Have short-term goals and deliverables. That way, you can identify issues early.
  • Bring issues to light as soon as you discover them. Discuss them with the members involved.
  • Come up with techniques to deal with people who are not responding. You can prevent this behavior by creating team rules early in the life of your team, or when you are first assigned to an existing virtual team. If team rules are violated, colleagues can bring these issues to light as soon as they occur. One successful global manufacturing team I coached set up an effective procedure. The team established team rules for acceptable and unacceptable behavior around team participation, communication, conflict management, meeting management, problem solving and decision-making. Every team member understood and signed off on these norms.
  • Develop availability standards. Team members should state their normal working hours as well as how often voice mail, e-mail and interoffice mail are checked. Then establish a standard for how quickly to respond to each mode. You can publish availability standards on the team’s website or in a shared system. An added advantage of establishing availability standards is that they act as a foundation for establishing team trust.
  • Have a clear performance plan, including escalation measures, for the team. Follow through when someone becomes unresponsive or unproductive.

Handling this vexing issue of “lost riders” requires constant vigilance and common sense. But if you follow through on the simple tips listed above, your virtual team will enjoy maximum participation and a better chance to meet deadlines and create success along the way.