For not quite 8 months I am responsible for a small team consisting of 9 people, who work completely virtually at 3 locations for 4 customers, which could not be more different. The team is allowed to decide for itself when and how it is allowed to do home office and at which of the three locations it wants to work. Although each team member lives at one of the three locations, they often commute between locations. However, our customers are not represented at the sites, which is not important as we work for them remotely. While two customers work more classically according to ITIL, the others are based on the DevOps method.

For this team to be successful, a new way of leadership and cooperation is important. In addition to the technical requirements such as VPN and software tools such as Jira and video conferences, cooperation on a human level was of course also an important factor for me, which is addressed in this article.

Four management methods – four customers

In order to support the team as much as possible, I have divided it by customer. Each customer has a permanent contact person. This employee works only for this customer. The other 5 employees work with 1.5 customers. In summary, a customer has a permanent employee as well as a representative.

In order to support this in the best possible way, I have applied four management methods for the four customers. With a client, I am more of a coach for the employee than an escalation for the customer if something should be.

In contrast, I work with a customer, even in the day-to-day business, and am on a perfect level with the customers and technicians in the project. For the third customer we work according to DevOps and I play the Scrum Master in the team. The fourth customer is new and I’m just finding my beat. For this reason, I can’t say so much yet, because I look carefully at the customer and let the technicians do it first, because the customer is still excellently managed by the responsible project manager.

Study: Success Factors of Virtual Teams

Back in 2013, Akin and Rumpf investigated success factors of virtual teams. Together with Tobias Greff of the AWS Institute, I conducted a study (Lindner and Greff 2018). selected of them. The 50 executives with a focus on virtual teams should evaluate the factors by importance from 1 (very important) to 5 (not important).

  • Mentoring/coaching of team members (2.44 – higher importance)
  • Determination of individual and group goals (2.48 – higher importance)
  • Definition of roles and task distributions (2.56 – average importance)
  • Organising personal meetings of the team to build trust (2.64 – average importance)
  • Control and monitoring of team members (4.88 – low importance)

Definition of roles and tasks

My first important task was to define roles and tasks. Some employees are assigned to a customer as described earlier. These are the strong seniors. The professionals each support 2 customers. Thus, these are coached extensively by 2 seniors. The following is the organization chart for the team. Since a customer and the 2 employees are still new, the cross-functional at customer D is not yet pronounced, but this is coming soon. I also have the role of “location verteter” per location, which takes on one person at a time. For example, he takes care of booking a room, etc., for us when we hold a meeting at a location.

virtual team
Current division of employees in the team

Mentoring/coaching of team members

In the first place in our study was the mentoring of the team members. I took that to heart in my team as well. That’s why I travel back and forth between locations every month and talk to the team and talk to the teams every day. Individual coaching is also important. That’s why I make weekly calls to every single team member. But I don’t think I’m coaching there, I’m just listening. From time to time I explain what the situation is at the other location in order to create an understanding. In most cases, the employee knows better how to act at the customer anyway and usually only needs an open ear.

Measures

  • Weekly one-on-one interviews
  • Daily conference call
  • monthly visit

Definition of individual and group goals

Now I have set specific goals for the team. On the one hand, I wanted to develop the professionals and further strengthen the seniors. So I have set OKRs (Objective and Key Results for the customers). OKRS means setting a team vision that is broken down to individual goals for both the team and the individual. These are negotiated democratically with the team. The result is as follows. For the time being, we have dispensed with the team vision, as the team is new and we want to maintain customer satisfaction for the first time.

  • Customer A: no complaints and outages (Proactive failure management)
  • Customer B: Exhaustion of the hourly continuity to the satisfaction of the customer
  • Customer C: Reaching the storypoints in each month
  • Customer D: Release of the new technology in June and proactive maintenance

With the respective jumpers, which are not directly assigned to any customer, I have agreed that they should learn and help to one day get the senior title. So the goal for everyone was to become a senior!

Measures

  • Customer goals democratically negotiated
  • Individual goal is always the next career stage

Organising personal meetings of the team to build trust

Another point, of course, is building trust. Especially with virtual teams, it is always important that the team knows each other and harmonizes. Luckily, in addition to enough travel budget, I also have a budget for a team evening a month. We usually leave together in the evening and often celebrate until the night. I think this is an important factor in the success of this team. We also complete a 3-4h meeting before the team evening in which we clarify various points.

Measures

  • Team evening once a month
  • Team meeting once a month

Control and monitoring of team members

I’m not actually a friend of surveillance, because I think it’s more insecure than promoting employees. I believe that everyone wants to work and that we should simply measure the achievement of the goals. We have Jira and a ticket system in which I can also check the tasks of the employees for hours. However, I talk to the team in the Daily or usually watch the customer how satisfaction is. I also pay more attention to ensuring that all employees comply with the customer’s processes (e.g. Scrum). Of course I also check the ticket system from time to time but usually everything is fine there or with so many customers and tickets it is never possible to understand everything in depth anyway.

Measures

  • Measuring goals
  • Ask employees
  • Ask customers

Open challenges and conclusion

I was happy to accept the challenge of virtual collaboration at the time and i am happy to work with this team every day and also with and on this way of working. It is also completely new for me, as I have examined virtual leadership in my doctorate rather theoretically but I was able to enter the race with some prior knowledge. In any case, it is important to clearly cut the tasks on the one hand and to allow overlaps on the other. Furthermore, clear goals and many individual conversations are very supportive.

For the future, I now also take care of docking the new customers and also developing the seniors in the team into strong managers. Maybe one day you will replace me. Now I would like to take on the final task, which is to abolish myself. My vision is that the team will continue to work completely autonomously, virtually and self-organizedfor the customers. Until then, we still have a lot of road ahead of us, but we are on the right track.

Reading tip: Organizational rebels – my change story

Genderhinweis: Ich habe zur leichteren Lesbarkeit die männliche Form verwendet. Sofern keine explizite Unterscheidung getroffen wird, sind daher stets sowohl Frauen, Diverse als auch Männer sowie Menschen jeder Herkunft und Nation gemeint. Lesen Sie mehr dazu.

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Verwendete Quellen anzeigen

Lindner, D., & Greff, T. (2018). Digital leadership in SMEs: an empirical study from the point of view of managers. currently still in the release phase

Akin, N., & Rumpf, J. (2013). Leadership of virtual teams. Group Dynamics And Organizational Consulting, 44(4), 373-387. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11612-013-0228-9

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I blog about the impact of digitalization on our working environment. For this purpose, I present content from science in a practical way and show helpful tips from my everyday work. I am a manager in an SME myself and I wrote my doctoral thesis at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg at the chair of IT Management.

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