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By Hendrik Geyser, Commercial Director for Digiata

[Johannesburg, 15 May 2018] Whether you’re looking for skills you can’t find locally, want to reduce the number of people in-office, need to expedite a project, or simply have some employees who might be better suited to working remotely, creating a virtual team may be the solution. With employers’ interests demanding the efficacy and sustainability of virtual staff, it’s important to get the basics right from the start.

The building blocks

When Digiata was looking to expand our developer shop, we struggled to find the right talent locally. Adding remote developers seemed like the answer but the company wanted to retain a hands-on approach. The solution was to use an app that mimics an actual office. Team members would log into the virtual office from the app, see who else was logged in, communicate with one another and collaborate in virtual meeting rooms.

This exercise soon revealed that, just like a real, face-to-face team, a virtual team only works when it has the right people in it – people who can do the job, have the discipline to work independently and are sufficiently good communicators capable of dealing with problems timeously.

Effective resourcing

When interviewing for a virtual role, companies need to identify the unique criteria they’re after and find ways to measure applicants’ aptitude for the work at hand. Using an initial interview screening process, with a multiple-choice test, will allow you to whittle down many candidates to a promising few. This should be followed by an online test of technical aptitude that is assessed by a human and serves to identify and rank candidates with the most suitable skillset.

Candidates who make it through the first two rounds can then be interviewed via an online platform, like Skype. This allows employers to assess soft skills like communication and comprehension – essential attributes for successful virtual work, whether alone or in a team.

Process drives productivity

Self-discipline is a crucial character trait for any virtual worker, but it’s difficult to determine whether a candidate possesses it. This is why an output-driven process is so important for virtual teams and should involve multiple, minor milestones and clear direction.

Where possible, measure small pieces of work and ensure team leaders and their teams know precisely what the expectations are. When milestones are missed, team leaders will know a problem exists.

Projects should also be specified in sufficient detail so that any coder on the team can work on a piece of the project at any time. Tasks should be listed in order of priority – so there are no questions as to which take precedence – with time estimates for how long each task requires to complete.

Just like in non-virtual teams, team members must be offered constant feedback around tasks, to ensure sufficient mitigation of potential issues. This can make the difference of only a few hours lost, instead of days.

Open dialogue

This approach doesn’t merely ensure efficiency; it ensures accountability and empowers employees to raise issues as they encounter them, knowing support and feedback are at hand. By keeping project tasks transparent and ensuring frequent feedback cycles, it also makes it easy for people to move tasks around or adjust their order, which improves agility and responsiveness.

Ensuring work is checked in small increments and accompanied by feedback removes potential roadblocks, and, crucially, potential excuses. The ability for anyone on the team to talk to anyone else at any time means any technical challenges, or gaps in a team member’s knowledge, can be rapidly identified and filled.

Though review and feedback are necessary, virtual teams will benefit more from high levels of autonomy. Focusing on the result of each task rather than the steps taken to get there leaves team members feeling like their abilities are valued and respected. At the same time, it frees up those offering feedback to focus on the bigger picture.

Another benefit is that virtual teams can have higher availability than real-world ones, considering team members can work across different time zones. In this way, it is often possible to get more done in a day than when all members are being productive during the same eight-hour window. For this to work, though, there must be sufficient overlapping time to ensure team members can communicate easily with one another.

How to get started

When trial-running a virtual team, start with an existing position in your company that could function as a virtual role. Make incremental adjustments to the role by first implementing a few days of virtual work a week, then a full week, then a month. With success, see which other positions could benefit from virtualisation. If not, don’t try to force it. The goal is to bolster productivity and streamline processes, not complicate them and introduce new obstacles.

Finally, it’s important that virtual employees enjoy their work, are given responsibility, and feel happy when they deliver results. Ultimately, an awful remote job is still an awful job.