Tips for Working as part of an Online Team
I recently completed a project in which I worked as part of an online team. It was a voluntary project in the field of international development, and I really enjoyed being involved. It was a great project for me as development is an interest of mine, and it was really lovely to feel as if I was doing something useful.
But it was the way of working - completely remotely - which really left its mark on me and felt quite revolutionary!
As all communication was by email, it meant that we could all work together, even though we were all in different countries and in different time zones.
I have worked in teams before, but never completely online like this. Although the members of our team could "meet" each other virtually and "talk" via email, not being able to meet up in real-life, speak to the others in person or see how they were going with their part of the project was a real challenge to my team-working skills!
Luckily our project went reasonably well and we got it finished on time - although there were moments when it looked as if we might not, due to people dropping out, some communication problems and various other teething troubles.
Now that the project is over I've had time to reflect on the things I think I did okay on and things that I could have done better, and I've drawn up this list of things to remember for my next online team project. Hopefully they will also help anybody else who's thinking of embarking on a similar online venture!
Working as a team, and the question of whether your team needs a leader.
These pointers are not necessarily all things that you should take it upon yourself to do; after all it's meant to be a team effort, and you might not want your colleagues to think that you're taking over!
But sometimes in a team situation there seems little incentive for individual team members to involve themselves in the things which are good and necessary for the team as a whole; especially if they are new to the teamwork. And so you may find that some members just concentrate on their own piece of work, with no regard to how this will fit into the combined project. But of course, if everybody does this then the end result will suffer!
So, (often out of necessity), there will be one or two individuals who take
it upon themselves to drive the project forward. Personally, I think that it's best to act in the interests of the team,
so in this particular project I was one of these people!
Luckily I wasn't totally alone in this role, and our team comprised of some very capable people with varied and much-needed skills.
What I learnt from working in a virtual team.
Here are some things that I learnt from this experience, things which I will hopefully use in the future.
1. Introduce yourself. Even though the team members may be thousands of miles apart, getting to know each other a bit better helps to bridge the miles a little. So take the plunge, introduce yourself! You don't have to tell them your life story; just your name and whereabouts you live, and things like what you do, the kind of work you've done in the past and how you've come to be involved in the project. Hopefully the others will follow your example.
2. Copy everyone into emails. As you're part of a remote team your main form of communication is likely to be email. Make an agreement right from the start that whenever you email one another about the project everybody in the team should be copied in, so that everybody always knows what's going on.
3. Communication is key. It is vital in any team to keep the channels of communication open at all times, especially as you can't really see what anyone else is doing! Everybody's work has an impact on the final project, so everyone needs to be clear that if they have any problems they should let the rest of the team know about them!
It's likely that somebody will be able to help. And one person's problems could mean that the project requirements are not met, it may not finish on time, and it might require other team-members to do additional work in order to save it. It's good to know these things as early as possible!
4. Check that you're all on the same page with your task. Do you all understand what you have to do, and do you all understand it to mean same thing? People interpret things differently, even when they have a common mother tongue! This may be even more of an issue when for some team members the project outline may be in a foreign language.
5. Be prepared to help others in your team. Team-members are likely to be from different backgrounds and have different skills and educational levels as well as the possible language problems. It's in everybody's interest that everyone understands what they have to do, and unless you have severe time constraints try to help out anybody who needs it. You should never feel as if you're competing against eachother to do the best work as you are all jointly responsible for the finished product. It's corny, but it's true that "there is no 'I' in teamwork".
6. Carving up the work. Does your project involve each person choosing to cover a particular geographical area or subject matter? If so, then somebody needs to send out the complete list of areas or subject matters, and make sure that everybody claims one. If somebody doesn't reply, don't just assume that they're going to take any area that is left. They might not be receiving your emails or may even have dropped out of the project!
Rather than making assumptions, ensure that you have positive confirmation from each team member of the work that they're going to undertake.
In our project, I found it
useful to make a list of all the areas we needed to cover, and updade
it and email it to everyone each time another area was claimed. That
way the people who hadn't yet committed to an area knew which ones were
left, and we all knew who to contact if we had issues about a
7. Common data presentation. If the project involves data that has to
be presented in a certain format, you need to make sure that everybody
is working to the same format. This might mean somebody sending a group
email with a list of columns that need to be included. It is especially
important that you're all presenting data columns in the same order and
using the same number formats if your work is to be collected together
and amalgamated later on.
Perhaps one of the team can design a spreadsheet that everyone can access. This is what we did, and it was great! One of my colleagues set up a spreadsheet in Google Docs that we could all update.
This ensures that everybody is working to the same format with little room for error, and it reduces confusion about the work you're all expected to do; plus anyone who is unsure about anything can simply look at their colleagues' work.
This also allows openness and clarity as each team-member can see how the rest of the team are doing, it allows you to double-check each other's work (if time allows), and everybody has a clear view of how the project is developing at all times.
8. Watch your timescales. It's important not to lose site of the time you have. If your
deadline is approaching and it's looking as if certain parts of the
project won't get done on time, then it's important that you find out
whether everybody is on track to finish their part of the project.
Somebody (or ideally several people) might have to take up the slack.
It's for reasons like this that it's vital to keep lines of
communication open at all times.
9. Final checks. You will need to decide on who will be responsible for doing the final checks, making any final edits, and emailing the finished work off to the project leader.
10. Stay in touch! It's really nice to keep in touch with your colleagues after the project is finished, both from a social point of view, and also to hear about any other interesting projects that they might go on to do!
I am Facebook friends with some of the people I worked with, and am fascinated and proud to see that some of them have taken their interest in development much further, by going out to developing countries to work in orphanages or on building projects, or entering into further education to do research on development subjects.
As a stay-at-home mum I enjoyed the flexibility of being able to volunteer from home, in my own time. And I'm keen to try some more online volunteering in the future, and get some more experience of working in this revolutionary way!
Online Volunteering Links
- Virtual volunteering: iVillage
Online volunteering is perfect for those who like to laze in their PJ's and save the world from the comfort of their own home. Find out more..: iVillage
- UEA Volunteers - Online Volunteering Opportunities
A useful collection of Online Volunteering websites.
- UNV Online Volunteering Service | Volunteer home
"Engage in the work of grassroots organizations, international NGOs, local governments, educational institutions and United Nations agencies"
- Cancer Research UK: Online volunteering
Volunteer for Cancer Research UK from your own home.