Six Tips for Coordinating a Virtual Team: Reaching Across Time Zones

“Individually, we are one drop. Together we are an ocean. ” – Ryunosuke Satoro, Japanese writer.

The days when everyone who worked for the same business or division had to congregate in the same building are mostly over. We must learn to work well with remote contributors and virtual teams.  Some might mourn the old days but I think this represents a natural evolution of the job environment, as sociological and technological change transform our society. If your team members trust each other to get your jobs done, with modern levels of communications technology; just about anyone can work from anywhere and still effectively mesh with his or her team members if everyone follows certain, well-established rules.

Completely virtual/remote teams—the terms are synonymous—are hardly the norm yet. However, they’re becoming more common especially for smaller businesses like mine, which have realized the value of reaching across the world to find an excellent employee who can do quality work for a reasonable price. Most online businesses from on down retain cadres of virtual workers, from software designers to tech writers to virtual assistants to make the magic work.

So: how do you best ensure the magic continues to work with virtual teams? Keep these five tips in mind.

  1. Try to meet each other in person occasionally. This may seem counterintuitive since the whole point of virtual teams is so you don’t have to limit yourself to face-to-face interaction. Of course, in some cases it may not be possible: if your graphics designer lives in Japan and you live in Houston you may never meet in person. But there’s no better way to really know a person. If you happen to be in the area where they live it’s a great idea to spend time together. At least have lunch, since you can write the visit off on your taxes. For example: I have family in San Antonio, Texas, so when I visit, I have lunch with one of my team members who lives there, too.

  2. Agree on specific rules for interaction. Make sure everyone knows who they should report to and when. It’s tempting to “skip” the correct lines of reporting and reach out directly to the person you need, which can cause confusion and incorrect prioritization. The “when” is also important when you live half-a-dozen time zones apart and the “who” comes into play so, for example, your editor and your graphic designer know to send information to your office manager while you’re away, instead of waiting for your return to submit their work.

  3. Make your communications very clear. I think we all have stories about someone who completely misunderstood or failed to check the instructions for a specific project and ended up doing the wrong thing. It can be a monumental task to fix, especially when under a deadline. Be careful to make your instructions explicit and remember what your schoolteachers used to say: read the whole question before you try to answer it. It’s frustrating when you spend time explaining something in detail, just to have someone else skip over it and answer incorrectly or incompletely.

  4. Be flexible timewise. Teammates who are located great distances from each other but require each other’s input must make efforts to compromise. You can either arrange things so you email each other regularly and drop off work on email or some other shared resource (like Google Docs) as you finish it so the second team member can pick it up and go; or, if you must chat, pick a time when you can both Skype. To one person it may seem far too early, and to the other quite late, especially if the distance is great but virtual work sometimes requires it. So make sure to rotate any inconveniences so one person isn’t always in the lurch.

  5. Find ways to overcome language difficulties. It may be easier to work with team members who have a solid competency with your native language. Given the growth of the global village this isn’t too hard (especially if your native language is English) but it won’t necessarily get you the best people to work with. If necessary, you can use Google Translate to interact. Just write your emails without the use of slang or idiom, in the simplest possible terms.

Virtually Amazing

These practices will help smooth any virtual work relationship, whether you lead the team or not. Even if you don’t work virtually with people all over the state, country, or world right now someday you probably will. It seems the logical outcome of current trends. So, keep these in mind for the future, when you must reach out across the time zones and touch someone.