Virtual teams need a set of tools to facilitate their work. One already mentioned is an up-to-date contact directory for everyone on the team; another is critical company contacts. A third tool is a central repository for all their work products. A product such as Microsoft's SharePoint enables team members to check out documents for update, track who has checked out which document, post announcements, and so on. This reduces time lost shuffling a document between team members through e-mail. Supervisors can see progress on-line by what is complete and what is checked out. Also, if someone leaves the team, his or her documents are already available for the replacement person to work on.
Instant messaging (IM) is a very tool for virtual workers. When someone is stuck on a long conference call, with the mute button engaged, that person can monitor the meeting and still exchange information through IMs. Instant messaging is ideal when a quick answer is all that is needed.
An on-line "Break Room" provides a place where team members can gather to swap ideas and discuss work, processes, or anything else on their minds. This is a place where the virtual team can exchange stories, much as they might do in the company lunchroom. The team manager must monitor the content exchanged to ensure that nothing violates company guidelines. This is also a great place to post notices, celebrate company anniversaries, and share other information.
Some companies establish Wikis that can be used by both virtual and on-site office workers. These are places to gather and share ideas about company processes, problems, benefits, and best practices. Team members can jump in and out of these to add information or research issues. Wikis also help to build team cohesion, as individual ideas are discussed, validated, and expanded.
IS A VIRTUAL OFFICE IN YOUR FUTURE?
Long ago, virtual workers were called telecommuters. This was because they used dial-up telephone connections to communicate with the main office. The communications were slow and were designed to be very basic. Complex tasks were held until the workers came into the office and used a directly connected terminal.
This arrangement was a big leap forward for people who traveled constantly to visit customer sites. For example, salespeople could enter orders directly into the order processing computer instead of mailing or calling them in. However, the equipment was bulky and slow. It was not suitable for working from home.
Modern technology has changed this situation. Most people have at least one personal computer at home, and they are experienced at using it. They likely also have a high-speed internet connection. Another enabling technology is a personal cellular phone, along with a dedicated telephone line at home. Taken together, these tools enable people to communicate verbally and electronically at a speed and capacity equal to equipment in the office.
As Figure 12-3 illustrates, people working from home have a higher quality of life. No more stressful commutes through severe weather. They stay snug at home and ready to work.
Virtual workers function about the same way as other office team members. They participate in meetings, interact with customers, create software, solve technical problems, work toward objectives, and deliver their work product to the people responsible for the next step in the process. All of these things can be accomplished without their physical presence.
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