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Constantly increasing complexity determines our daily work. More and more flexibility is needed to meet the challenges of digitalization and to keep pace with global progress. At the same time, the shortage of skilled workers puts considerable pressure on the brake.
The usual static structures in companies and project organizations offer a feeling of security, but they prevent the flexibility and dynamism that agile teams need to really maintain a process of continuous improvement. Virtual teams offer a way out of this dilemma and ensure scalability and flexibility in teams. Through the use of virtual teams you even have two possibilities to solve your personnel bottlenecks:
- Your existing team is complemented by a virtual team of professional freelancers, permanently or on-demand – as a hybrid team that integrates seamlessly into your existing team and solves the skill and capacity bottlenecks that are currently burdening your organization or project.
- A virtual project team with a local representative that independently implements entire projects or sub-projects and thus keeps internal project teams focused and relieves them.
This is the best way to start
Scaling your organization through the use of virtual teams is a step-by-step procedure and requires a certain systematic approach. The most important question at the beginning is: “With which tasks do I start to gain first experiences with a virtual team? “How can I lead virtual teams if I’ve never seen them personally before?” We recommend that you first strengthen one of the following areas with a virtual team (i.e. your existing, mostly local team + a virtual team = hybrid team) and then delegate this area completely to a virtual team if there is a chance of success. The areas are:
- Administrative tasks that are clearly defined and easy to control
- Bring new topics closer to your team through a virtual consultant
- Solve capacity bottlenecks in core tasks and virtually expand your team
In any case, it all the more depends on the right tools, workflows and of course the right experts for the right tasks. More about “delegating properly in the virtual team” follows later in this guide. Read more about Virtual Teams and Virtual Organizations in another blog post.
Before you next consider hiring a new employee, overworking your team, or letting your team complete tasks they can’t or don’t really like, consider scaling through a virtual team.
Success factors in your team
The success of a virtual team comes from clarity in the responsibility of each individual, clarity about individual tasks, about shared tools and workflows that enable efficiency in collaboration, and about clarity about the common goal and the way to it.
All these factors also apply to a local team. However, since a local team usually communicates much more frequently due to the spatial proximity (i.e. unplanned either in the corridor, in the kitchen or with a call to the neighbour across the table), ambiguities are clarified by “just ask quickly” or an attempt is made to clear up a meeting. The advantage of this form of teamwork is that there is quick help with questions. The disadvantage is, however, that this form of collaboration does not lead to more structure and clarity and that employees are kept away from their actual work by frequent questions or meetings.
The essential success factors in the virtual team are:
- Clarity in the role and responsibility of each employee
- Clarity in individual tasks and the expected results (best possible measured with KPIs or OKRs)
- The right workflows in the team that lead to regular and targeted interaction
- The right tools to help your team achieve this clarity in collaboration and foster collaboration
- Regularity in communication according to clear rules (e.g. on the basis of the frameworks Scrum or Kanban, which provide clear rules for agile cooperation)
- The right experts who are familiar with the right tasks and roles
- Transparency in processes and results
- Clarity in expectations towards all team members (described in the role description), especially regarding response times and availability
- Asynchronism in communication (to escape the dilemma of many appointments and to give team members the opportunity to respond when it suits their schedule)
The division of roles in the team
Compared to a local team, a virtual team, which may even be distributed across different time zones, usually works asynchronously. This means that although there are and must be fixed meeting times to find a common rhythm, not everyone in the team is available at all times. To avoid disappointment from unfulfilled expectations, it is essential that these expectations are clearly formulated. This is done in the role description. Be sure to cut the rolls “tightly” in order to have the opportunity to fill them with real experts. Roles that contain too many demands on skills and experience lead to the fact that these roles can only be filled by all-rounders who usually only have average quality in the individual skills. A role description should at least clarify the following areas as clearly as possible:
- The general responsibility of the role
- The required availability in which time zone (e.g. 14:00 to 18:00 CEST “Central European Summer Time” on each working day)
- Detailed role description (what exactly is this person supposed to do, both tasks and responsibilities)
- What is the result if this role is filled correctly?
- How the result is measured (KPIs or OKRs)
- For what is this role “accountable” (Attention, for one thing only one person may be “accountable” at a time)
- For what are these roles “responsible” (several people can be “responsible” [operationally responsible] for one thing)?
- For what does this person have “Authority” (there may be several people for one thing who have “Authority” [may decide on it])
- Onboarding steps for a person in this role
- Required hard skills of person in this role
- Required experience of the person in this role
- Required soft skills of the person in this role
- Required language and language level
If you would like to see a detailed role description from a virtual team, please contact Manuel Pistner at firstname.lastname@example.org on this topic.
Avoid “role pollution”
A negative example for rolls cut too wide, which lead to the fact that the tasks are usually carried out and delivered only with medium quality, is the usual description, e.g. of a software developer. In most of the projects we have seen, the developer is responsible for at least 3 of the following areas, namely:
- build professional understanding
- to determine the architecture of the software
- frontend development
- baking end development
- have an eye for usability
- Server or Cloud Administration
- and of course to test his own work (quality assurance)
In a virtual team with well-defined roles that promote asynchronous collaboration and enable the use of subject matter experts, these responsibilities are defined by individual roles as follows:
- Business Analyst (Structure Requirements)
- Software Architect / Team Lead (develop software architecture with the team)
- frontend developer
- backend developer
- UX Designer (usability of the software)
- DevOp Engineer (Server and Cloud Administration)
- Software tester (quality assurance)
The roles in other teams such as marketing teams, sales teams, accounting teams, design teams, social media teams, etc. are structured analogously.
Does “Can you do that again?”, “Can you help me here?” mean that a person is creepingly entrusted with new tasks, often outside the area of core competence, we call this “role pollution”.
The right tools
Tools have the important task to support the team in workflows and communication in the best possible way and to bring clarity and structure into the cooperation. They also aim to provide transparency on performance and progress and to enable asynchronous collaboration. In most virtual teams we work with the following tools:
- Project management: Jira, Asana or Trello
- Time recording: Jira, Tempo, Toggl
- Chat communication: Slack or Microsoft teams
- Video chat: Zoom or Microsoft Teams
- Process automation: Zapier, Microsoft Flow or IFTTT
- File management: Google Drive, Microsoft Sharepoint
- Accounting: Xero or Quickbooks
- CRM: Pipedrive, Hubspot, Salesforce
We rely exclusively on cloud tools, taking into account the necessary measures for compliance with the DSGVO and general security, as these contribute to a high degree of automation via interface integration and can be operated with very low maintenance. A prerequisite for working with virtual teams is that everyone in the team, no matter where they are, has secure access to the infrastructure, applications and tools needed to complete the tasks. This ensures that everyone in the team has transparency about the current status.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the statement “I’d have expected otherwise”. It usually leads to disappointment on both sides. This disappointment can be avoided by clarity in delegation. Basically, there are different levels of delegation and clear rules that must be observed.
Rule #1: When you delegate a task, it is still your responsibility to ensure that the task is performed correctly. If the person who has been delegated the task fails, the task is brought back to you.
Clearly define what the person to whom you delegate a task should do and exactly what the result should be (output and quality of output). This includes
- What to do (goal, task)
- By when should it happen (clear deadline)?
- What shouldn’t happen
- How to do it (Quality)
- What should be used to do it?
- When do status control meetings take place and how should controlling take place?
- How and in which tool should the status be documented?
- Which status reports do you want and when (if it is a larger task)?
- How should the result be delivered (file, presentation, code etc)?
- When you delegate a task to a person, make sure the person has the skills needed to do the task for you. Otherwise, you will have to complete the task again or yourself.
Depending on the skills and experience of the person in the area of the delegated task, you may need to delegate small tasks (inexperienced) with many checkpoints or larger tasks (experienced) only with the presentation of the result. It is your responsibility to find the right way of delegation for a person.
When you delegate a task to a person for the first time, make sure you frequently set checkpoints to check that the person is on the right track. You can reduce the frequency of controlling once you gain confidence in the person’s competence as it delivers results in time, budget and quality.
Always write down the task that you want to delegate and make the progress in processing traceable and transparent by using a task tracking tool.
Finding the right experts
In order to fill the defined roles of your virtual team correctly, you need the right experts with the right skills and the necessary experience. Having the right experts in your team accounts for at least 50% of your team’s probability of success. The remaining 50% are determined equally by the right workflows and the right tools.
Ensure through a suitable assessment that you have the right experts for the right tasks.
You can find freelancers through numerous online talent marketplaces.
However, here is an urgent request: Don’t make the same mistakes we made in the beginning, they cost us a lot of money, time and disappointment. In any case, pay attention to the following points if you want to find and hire freelancers directly via online marketplaces such as Upwork, Fivrr, Guru, Freelancer.com etc..
- Make sure the person has a webcam and is actually the person shown in the profile.
- Always talk to the person in person in a video interview before working with them
- Make sure that the person you are talking to is really the person who will be working with you later. Account managers only bring you disadvantages in the virtual team due to a lack of transparency and control.
- Don’t just go for ratings in your profile. You’ll find out for yourself: Even if the work was not really good, one does not want to harm the person and does not give a bad rating. This usually leads to the fact that the profiles do not realistically represent the quality and satisfaction in the cooperation.
- Never let a freelancer work unattended for days without checking results or progress. Convince yourself daily of the quality of the results, especially in the first 14 days.
Our experience is that about 80% of freelancers do not have the skills and experience that you need or do not meet the standards of quality in communication and reliability that you expect. An assessment, if you do it yourself, usually requires 5-8 interviews until you find a really good person for your task/role.
From all talent marketplaces, we maintain an internal evaluation database with our own evaluations of selected freelancers. Please feel free to contact us if you want profiles from this Flash Hub Pool.
Identifying risks at an early stage
In the virtual team, you don’t see yourself in the office every day. This means that you cannot check the presence of every team member. From our experience it does not matter at all. The control of the results and the progress in the team are substantially more important. This is achieved through clear KPIs, clear delegation and transparency. The following indicators show you how you can identify risks in the virtual team in order to make decisions at an early stage.
- Results will not be delivered without notice of delay
- Communication is unclear and non-binding
- Communication is irregular
- The agreed availability is not adhered to.
- In spite of clear communication, misunderstandings obviously occur again and again
- Tools and workflows are not used as agreed in the role description.
- Frequent reasons why a result could not be delivered are presented
Be fair but consistent. Communicate your expectations clearly and point out the consequences. Expect the same from the freelancers you work with. Should you notice after two “warning shots” that despite all clarity no better and more reliable results can be achieved, end the cooperation friendly. If you postpone this decision too long, you endanger your project. But please always keep in mind: Every human being is and remains a human being and has the right to be treated fairly and as a human being. This applies to the local as well as the virtual team. If a freelancer does not fit for a task, he or she may still be excellently suited for another task.
If you come to a point where you have replaced a freelancer in a role more than 3 times, be self-critical and check your processes. Often they are not the wrong people, but one of the following points:
- Incorrect input (see “Delegating correctly”)
- Wrong experts for the wrong tasks
- Incorrect assessment of the experts in advance
- The wrong tools or workflows for your project
Please feel free to contact us if you need support in setting up or leading your virtual team.