Virtual realities: 5 management tips for the era of virtual work

Tiffany Meyers

The world may be flat, but remote workers still struggle to close the distance between each other. If you’re a project manager, it’s often up to you to defuse the linguistic, logistical and cultural land mines of virtual work, which happens to be on the rise. According to The Nemertes Research Group, people who work remotely in the United States alone increased 800 percent from 2008 to 2013.

Managers who get it right access not just cost advantages but a vast supply of talent that can be scaled up or down overnight. And then there’s the two-edged sword of time zones: If you stagger schedules, you can develop projects 24 hours a day without overworking anyone.

Covintus, a software development consultancy, engages 500 highly skilled developers who work from locations around the world. Having managed countless projects for Covintus, delivery manager John O. McGann shared some best practices with us to help you navigate your way around the very real obstacles of virtual teams.

Be radically supportive. Virtual team members are at risk for feeling isolated in a way that in-person team members aren’t. The solution lies in your dedication to supporting your people at every turn, starting with an understanding of the unique position in which they find themselves.

“It can be daunting to be a developer in a different part of the world, no matter how gifted you are,” said McGann. “You’re totally on your own. As a manager, I need to show them that they have my full support, and that can sometimes mean being available around the clock. We want them to feel they’re right here with us.”  

Evolve with technology. An array of software tools helps close the distance. McGann and his team live and die by Basecamp, Jira and GoToMeeting. That said, the specific tools are almost beside the point.  

“Software for managing virtual teams is always changing,” said McGann. “My advice is that you constantly evaluate and adopt new tools to stay competitive and increase efficiencies.”  

Gain fluency. Covintus shows its commitment to team members by covering the cost of English classes for developers who show interest. If you’re not in the position to offer such a benefit, McGann has other tricks up his sleeve.

Many of the developers he works with write English well but are uncomfortable in conversation. During GoToMeetings, he asks his developers to supplement the conversation with writing, typing into the platform’s chat feature or texting by phone.

“It alleviates a lot of burden and stress for our developers so that they can focus on what they do best,” said McGann.

Over-communicate. The success of even basic projects hinges on the extent to which expectations are clearly expressed. With people scattered across the world, clarity becomes doubly important. These teams don’t have the luxury of chatting casually about goals during coffee breaks and hallway encounters.

“It’s not a good idea to micromanage,” says McGann. “But because I’m not in direct contact with my team, I want to be sure they stay on task. I deliberately over-communicate expectations and remind them what they’re accountable for. It’s about keeping those milestones top of mind.”

Create healthy competition. McGann also holds weekly meetings specifically to encourage team members to share progress. This serves a different purpose entirely: healthy competition.

“Dispersed team members can’t see what other people are up to,” said McGann. “When they update each other in these meetings, it engages their competitive spirit. Our developers are highly motivated. They don’t want to be outperformed.”

 

Photo via Shutterstock

For its roster of entrepreneurial clients, Covintus assembles teams of top software developers from around the world. Working on a fixed-price, fixed-timeline basis, Covintus teams deliver innovative solutions on time every time. Learn more.

 

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