Managing MAN, a Virtual Team's Successes and Failures
Updated: Jun 29, 2019
Beginnings of MAN
In November 2013, just weeks after my wedding, I attended a training in Venice, Italy; working with refugees and asylum seekers. I was given a Grundtvig scholarship to attend and present my masters' thesis. As a follow up to the ten-day training, I set up the Migration and Asylum Network (MAN). The idea was to stay in touch with and share information with the participants regarding our respective careers working with migrants in different countries. We set up a Jicsmail and took it from there.
After 6 months I asked for a volunteer to help me expand the space and post more regularly. She persuaded me to set up a facebook group - now with almost 4000 members - and the following year we started a Twitter. After a while, I asked for more volunteers to help organise the platform and upcoming events. I wanted to see if we could expand and re-brand the concept and transform ourselves into a migration and asylum research hub. It was an ambitious concept and one that I thought to fully develop post-PhD. The team seemed excited so we started slowly developing. What I then entered into for the next almost two years was a crash course in virtual team management.
I conducted a strategic review and a collaborative process for decision making. We created a team structure. We made a volunteer agreement. We co-wrote the volunteer duties and engaged in time management using an online platform to track deadlines. I even expanded the strategic review with a 3-year plan of what we hoped to achieve. We managed to meet in person on 3 occasions in a year and organised two international events. We came up with some innovative and creative projects with forced migrants - the photovoices project being one. Yet, something wasn't working.
Working alone or with one other person, it was simple to keep track of and manage the volunteering expectations. We were both out of our masters into the early stages of our PhDs. With more people - 5 to be exact - with varying motivations, backgrounds and in different locations, there came more team management issues.
The team missed deadlines. Or, one of the team's members would drop responsibilities at the last moment with someone else having to pick up the slack. There was confusion about tasks and deliverables. So, we redid the strategic review, this time with the team. We created more detailed lists of responsibilities and allocated who was responsible for which action. I would reward and compliment people on good work. They were after all volunteers, I was incredibly honored they would dedicate their time. We created a calendar and marked times we would be available for work and times we could not. We made agreements on the number of hours depending on each person's availability.
Yet, the same issues in the team would persist. Something still wasn't right. Eventually, I dropped certain volunteers and we were down to 2 main volunteers and a third independent team working with us. In this time, I moved to Malaysia and the coordination between with the group broke down and the pressure of the PhD, fieldwork with refugees and issues of remote coordination in an extremely different time zone took its toll. Around November of 2017, we decided to call it a day. The Facebook group continues (and is growing!) and we post regularly on conferences, news and events related to migration and asylum. The project to expand to a meaningful hub stopped. At least for the time being. I would love to continue and work with volunteers again. I would love to work remotely with a virtual team - hopefully including paid workers. But, it was time to leave my MAN behind.
Working Virtually and Remotely is the
There is so much value to working remotely; insights from different countries, a wider range of best practices and experiences. So, what would I do differently or keep the same if I were to manage a team virtually again?
5 Key Lessons Learnt
1. More Remote Social Chats; it's all about communication, stupid
What we gain in an office or physical co-working space is the ability to have spontaneous moments to connect and share ideas or just chat about life. These coffee break or water cooler moments are essential to building a team spirit.
I still have a relationship with some of the former volunteers. But, I wish I had invested more time to get to know them. This would have made it easier to filter out those without conviction or skills for remote working, but also create greater cohesion and sense of community. This could be in the form of weekly social chat sessions - where people present on a topic of their choice/aspect of their life and other respond and providing feedback and hopefully encouragement - or less formally, a regular virtual drinks and dinner via Skype (or video conferencing of your choice). There are so many ideas for virtual team engagement. I do wish I had learnt more about them and invested more time to enhance the group dynamics.
2. Have Consequences and Accountability Measures
We created a system of work schedules and responsibilities. We had clearly defined duties and a second in charge to support the tasks for each category of work. These worked well. However, I didn't follow up on consequences for those who simply chose not to complete tasks at the last minute for no reason. The hardest lesson was that despite there being room for kindness and understanding of life circumstances, actions which harm the team dynamics, create pressure or stop the progress of the work need to be reprimanded. These consequences must also be decided in advance with accountability measures put in place. Nevertheless, the best practice we did have in place was to clarify what happened and question if the system had worked or let the team down and work to improve our own team management. This was crucial. And certainly, something I would repeat.
3. Be Results and Deliverable Oriented
Focusing on the outputs is more important than the working hours put in. We did this one. However, it was not and still cannot be stressed enough that the end results mattered. Having clear KPIs or goal/action deliverables mapped in advance is incredibly important. These agreed goals help manage realistic expectations of what the team and individuals can achieve and how to progress. Teams need to understand why they are doing what they are doing.
Also, a lot of time needs to be put into reviews and spent editing the strategic plan - however, that's fine. With experience, the timelines get clearer. But, the focus on achieving the results and clear outputs meant the tasks (that were set virtually) began to feel more real and grounded.
4. Find a Virtual Team Home
Research good virtual co-working/team management platforms. We struggled to find an online 'home' for the group. The one we used frequently stopped working and Skype would stutter during the video conference call. There were fewer apps online at the time that I was aware of and fewer free resources. This is not the case now. There are many great sites with tools to increase productivity that does not require the team to be sitting in an office together. I've listed some of the best I know of below.
Another idea would have been for the team to share where they worked best in the physical space they were in. Tips from the group to increase productivity for themselves - such as do they work from home (with their dog on their feet) or have a separate private space for virtual work? Do they prefer a cafe/library or to create a Meetup co-working group with other remote workers in their local area? Sharing best practices within the team for remote working also can bring the group closer together.
5. Educate and Train; Inside Out and Outside In
Although we didn't implement it fully, we did set up a training schedule. We found relevant Skillshare classes and trainings near the different team members they could attend. Also, within the team we had a wealth of experience and educational backgrounds. We talked about setting up mentors and training sessions from individuals in the team. What we should have done is started with a dedicated team building and knowledge building phase. Everyone prepares a training session to present to the group, with additional planned training by the management team members on; remote working, expectations, team's working values/principles and project planning.
All of these 5 'lessons' are based on my experiences over 3 years building up a small virtual team, of which two years was the actual team management. There's much more to say and plans of how I would do it again. Do I regret stopping the original plan to expand into a virtual hub? No. It was the right time to stop. Accepting when its time to move on is important in any 'startup' story. Would I do it again, better even, with my experience? Absolutely. It was a rewarding time and great learning, where I was lucky to have met wonderful talented people who were as passionate as I was on the topic.
Remote work can offer us so much in terms of well-being, collaborations and opportunities to share knowledge and network. It's definitely worth the investment. I've shared some of the best project management tools for virtual teams below. Take a look and see if you would start your own virtual team for your work or passion projects.
10 Online Tools for Remote Working
Slack Collaborative communication space
Teamweek Gantt Chart planning tool
Toggl Time tracking for teams
Google Drive Collaborative Documents and Administrative Heart of Virtual Team
Trello A Visual Corkboard and Lists, Lists, Lists
Ryver Team and Task Management
Hipchat Team communication
Flock A collaboration hub
Airtable Information Database
Zoom a video conferencing platform
Many of these Apps and Websites offer free and paid options. Listed in no particular order.