TEAM BUILDING

3 Tips for Managing Virtual Teams

Three years ago, the company behind WordPress hired innovation expert Scott Berkun to manage a virtual team. Here's what he learned.
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In Scott Berkun's new book, The Year Without Pants, the former Microsoft project manager chronicles his time managing a virtual team at Automattic, the 120-person company behind Wordpress.com.

What did he learn? Here are three tips, culled from Berkun's recent interview on the In Beta talk show:

1. You don't need pricey tools to communicate. At Automattic, Berkun's team used a combination of Internet chat, Skype, and a WordPress theme called P2. Its use of Internet Relay Chat, known as IRC, which is, essentially, a chatroom, was like hallway conversation. (The team discussed sports and politics there. But they also discussed work-related matters.) Skype was for virtual team meetings. And P2 was the closest thing to an email equivalent: Members of the team reaching out to and replying to each other on comment threads. One key takeaway here is that all three of these tools are generic and free. 

2. Communications skills--writing clearly, reading carefully--are essential. Berkun's team members all wrote well. They also read well--meaning, specifically, that they did not skim messages. The primary tip here, Berkun says, is to slow down. "If you read too fast, you read worse. If you write too fast, you write worse," he tells Inc.com. Part of that slowing down is thinking carefully about your word selection--and the words that your colleagues select. 

While these traits are partly teachable, they are also core talents--the type of thing you have to hire for. So what's the best way to screen for it in the hiring process? "Hiring by trial, which Automattic does, filters out lousy communicators during the hiring process since they have to use the same tools and methods everyone else at the company does," says Berkun. Short of a three-month job tryout, you could make the candidates communicate during the hiring process using the same tools they'd use on the job. 

3. One weekly meeting can still be extremely helpful. Even if the nature of your project doesn't require real-time communication. For emotional reasons, it can be "energizing to hear everyone's voice, or even just watch the banter and conversation happen in the moment," says Berkun. "It also allowed me as team lead to set the tone for the week and establish enthusiasm for what we were doing and why." Real-time meetings are still useful for morale.

IMAGE: Official US Navy Page/Flickr
Last updated: Nov 15, 2013




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