Aline Yurik, Brandeis University – Graduate Professional Studies

Dr Aline Yurik founded and directs the Masters program in Virtual Team Management and Communication at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA.   View video of this program

Students in her program come from all over the world spanning industries and professions. “People come from IT, education, finance, accounting – they want to know how to use the virtual workplace to augment skills and make their projects successful.”

“Trust is one of the key factors. People on virtual teams can work together for years and never see each other, yet they have forged deep and trusting relationships.”  In any work situation we develop trust when we find similarities between ourselves and others, by doing things together, being responsive, by completing tasks on time. “It starts with the team lead reaching out, checking with others, setting the expectation of constant, open, and prompt communication, allowing people to make their own decisions, maintaining confidentiality, and by publically acknowledging member’s good work.”  

It is particularly crucial for managers of virtual teams to detect and address conflict. “Notice any changes in behavior or attitude. You need to bring conflict to light even more so on a virtual team because people don’t see each other”. Aline advises having a positive open-minded talk with each party, where you tell them you are sensing tension and invite them talk about their concerns. Once you understand these and have discussed possible solutions, arrange a meeting among people involved to deal with the conflict and to work out a resolution.

People need to be their own leaders so they can do great work without prodding. Virtual managers should walk a fine line between trusting people’s capabilities and ensuring tasks are being done, without coming across as a micromanager. “Never throw someone on a virtual team a big chunk of work with a 2-3 week deadline. Tasks should be broken into smaller chunks where you hold the person responsible and then keep in continuous contact.”  The manager should talk with each person on the team every day to ask how things are going.

Sometimes virtual teams benefit from setting up a social networking site for themselves where they can share a little personal information on themselves such as a hobby, post pictures of themselves and their families. “Virtual teams need to be very open minded that not everyone has the same viewpoint or lifestyle, they need to be open to learning and sharing.” Folks should be encouraged to share stories that give others a window into their culture and world such as being hit with a big snow storm or what they did with their families for Christmas.

Aline’s program is completely virtual. Students work in virtual teams for every homework, so they get the flavor of what it is like to lead a team whose members may be in China and Europe.  As in the real virtual teams they must negotiate schedules around huge time zone differences and develop project management and processes to “stay on the same page while not being in the same context”. The student teams use synchronous and asynchronous technology to communicate, track progress, and share information: a web meeting and collaboration tool Elluminate, discussion forums, wiki, individual and team chats, electronic calendars, e-Mail, phone and Web conferencing. Chat is particularly useful because people can multi-task while chatting and it overcomes issues with accents and phone quality.

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