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HR MATTERS: Virtual Employees and Digital Nomads

Creating teamwork

Managers in many Alaskan companies build virtual teams linking managers and employees in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau with co-workers and employees located at sites from Barrow to Ketchikan, Dutch Harbor to Glenallen and Atlanta to San Diego.

Occasionally Alaska-based employers retain key employees as digital nomads when talented staff travel or relocate for personal reasons. More often, Alaskan employers create virtual teams because it takes employees in both rural and urban settings to meet a statewide mission. Virtual teaming also creates consistency between senior managers in Alaska parent companies and their direct reports in subsidiaries, whether across town, around the state, in the Lower 49, or out of the country.

 

The Virtual Breakroom

Within a traditional workplace, co-workers swap stories, talk about their family and share vacation photos. With virtual teams, employers need to provide a way for team members to build the sense of community and friendship that helps them interact as a team.

Blog posts and team wikis allow for continuous dialogue and sharing of departmental news. A public dashboard allows employees to constantly share progress and issues, with status updates becoming the virtual small talk. Because email can’t replace in-person meetings, arrange video interactions through Skype or cloud video conferencing to give the sense of a real human face.

 

Tools Needed

When creating virtual teams, set up all members for success with the tools needed to come to the remote table, such as personal digital devices, high-speed Internet connections and laptop computers with virtual private network connectivity.

Collaboration tools such as Microsoft SharePoint let employees see others’ desktops, stay current on workflow tasks, and even jointly edit documents. Cloud-based options offer lower overhead, increased flexibility and reduced IT support.

 

Manager Strategies

Effective virtual teamwork starts with wise hiring. Because you can’t guide and monitor out-of-sight employees as easily as those located near your office, seek out individuals who demonstrate self-reliance, initiative and solid work ethic. As virtual teaming requires interdependence, look for collaborative employees who instinctively reach out to others with ideas and questions.

Even the best employees can wither in remote situations unless their managers commit to regular contact. It takes extra managerial effort to reach out and engage employees when you don’t run into them in the hall or by the coffee machine. Manager feedback, early and often, along with overt communication from colleagues, helps virtual workers feel connected.

Managers additionally foster a team mentality by establishing team operating procedures, setting goals that require team interaction, and giving team members multiple opportunities to see how their virtual peers can help them. We’ve had great success with the team “talent search” in which team members exchange bulleted information on “what they bring to the table,” followed by group discussion concerning what each team member needs from the manager and peers in communication, interaction and resources. We codify this in team “operating agreements.”

 

Moving Virtual Teams Forward

Effective team managers focus on community before activity, and begin virtual team exchanges with informal conversations that help team members feel they have a social connection. The company’s Intranet can also facilitate this bonding by providing a platform for team members to share personal experiences along with family news or photos.

Additionally, team managers can both recognize individual achievement and foster inspiration by circulating outstanding team member work products to others on the team. Finally, as misunderstandings can easily grow from cryptic or abrupt emails, team managers need to keep their eye on team member exchanges and intervene swiftly when they sense low-level problems that could fester into larger barriers.

Would your organization benefit from bringing together a virtual team? Many Alaskan organizations have made it work with some extra time and outside-the-box thinking.

 

Lynne Curry, Ph.D., SPHR and owner of the Alaska-based management consulting firm, The Growth Company Inc. consults with companies, individuals and Boards of Directors to create real solutions to real workplace challenges.

 

This article is a web exclusive to the December 2012 edition of Alaska Business Monthly.

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