In this day and age of fast Internet everywhere, mobile apps and the sudden meaningless of geographical location, more and more companies have what’s known as virtual teams.

From what we’ve seen in our company, MeetingKing, although the projects vary from designing websites to creating a new mobile application, the basic structure remains more or less the same – the project manager sits in one central location, and he manages his team which can include designers, developers, QA testers, customer support teams and even marketing people, from all around the world.

So, in addition to the usual challenge of managing your project and getting the final product launched when it’s due, you also have the fun of managing a team who live in different timezones, come from different cultures and speak different languages.

So how do you do it?

1. Use the same tools

Some people use Skype to communicate, others use Google Hangouts, and still others use IRC. When you manage a virtual team, you have to make sure that everyone is on the same page, has access to the same tools, and knows about them in advance. Do you really want to waste 20 minutes of your first team meeting waiting for your developer to download and set up Skype? Because it’s not just your time you’re wasting – it’s the rest of the team’s as well.

By the way, I’m taking communication as the easy example here, but it goes for everything. Got two developers from India and another two from Brazil? Are they using the same source control? Are they both using Visual Studio 2010? Got web designers on different continents? Are they using compatible versions of Adobe Photoshop? Are they both working on Chrome or IE?

And so on.

We recommend:
Before you get started, sit down and make a list of tools you think will be required. Then ask your team to chip in with their own additions. Then make the list available to the whole team.

2. Synchronize your watches

Finding the right time for a team of five people to meet when they work on the same floor can sometimes be a challenge. Finding time for a team of five people to meet when they don’t even work on the same continent can be nearly impossible. When you’re talking about 8 hour time differences, the window of opportunity shrinks to a barely manageable two hours.

First of all, you have to define the rules. Make sure that your offshore teams understand that they may need to be a little more flexible – having a meeting at eight o’clock in the evening might not be ideal, or within acceptable working hours, but that’s part of the fun of working on projects that are based in different time zones. If you want, you can set up a rota, to make sure that sometimes you are inconvenienced, and sometimes they are.

To set up the actual meeting, you can use the World Clock , set up Google Calendar to show more than one timezone. MeetingKing, by the way, makes the adjustment automatically, and lets each person know when the meeting is according to his or her time zone.

We recommend:
Set up a weekly meeting in advance. Say, every Tuesday at 19:00. Make sure it’s at the most convenient possible time for everyone. With a weekly meeting, it’s easier to schedule, as opposed to impromptu meetings that I have to fit around my schedule.

3. Document everything

One of the biggest challenges with projects is adding new people to the team, or replacing team members. You, as the project leader, have to sit down and walk them through the initiation ceremony which consists of telling them what they are working on, giving them your vision of the final product, understanding how to best fit them into the team, and who will bring them up to speed.

If they are designers, you need to make sure they get the PSD files from the other designers to work on, along with the web site color pallette, iconography, and so on. Developers need to be shown the code, and understand how it works, so they don’t break anything, and they can fix bugs when they crop up. Usernames and passwords need to be exchanged, administration rights need to be handed over, and marketing messages need to be conveyed.

In short, as anyone who’s worked on a project long enough, it’s a hassle. Again, it’s a hassle when people are in the same company, working in the same building – when we are talking about a virtual team from different points of the country, or further, it becomes much much harder.

So document. Everything. Keep a repository of emails, usernames, passwords and insist it’s updated. Make sure that developers comment on their code and write proper documentation. Make sure that any important files or reports are kept in an easily accessible place, not in someone’s email as an attachment.

We recommend:
Write down a short list of steps that people who just start (or are taking over from someone else) has to follow. Make sure the list is updated if things change, of course.

To sum up, managing a virtual team is a challenge – but one that has, at the end of the day, huge benefits. So if you’re wondering whether to do it, then go ahead and take the plunge – just don’t forget to bookmark this post!

Agree? Disagree? Feel I’ve left something out? Let me know in the comments!

Photo credit: diegodiazphotography