You might think the cofounder and CEO of an Internet start-up would be a pushover for all the latest tech tools when it comes to managing virtual teams.

But Chris C. Mathews of Shanghai, China-based software maker Yunio actually espouses a minimalist strategy—even as he virtually corrals teams around the globe. In China, Mr. Mathews leads teams in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Beijing and Nanjing, and he also oversees players in the United States, Australia and Europe.

Without meticulous coordination, those varying time zones and cultures could wreak havoc on projects. Yet while Mr. Mathews is the first to admit technology has its place to ensure nothing gets lost in translation, he also says project managers shouldn’t just rely on cumbersome gadgetry and overly complex interfaces to manage their teams.

First identify natural social interactions, he says. Then develop techniques and choose technologies that seem instinctual and comfortable for users. Above all, focus on clear communication, no matter what channel or vehicle is used.

Sometimes it’s more effective for project managers to show rather than tell, particularly when leading virtual teams with different cultural nuances. Because team members look up to the project manager, they’ll mimic his or her behavior, Mr. Mathews says.

When he first began working with his Chinese teams, for example, he noticed it wasn’t the norm for an employee to let teammates know when he or she would be absent. “I learned then that you have to be responsible about saying, ‘If you’re going to be gone, let everyone know what is the best way to reach you,’” he says.

So he started leading by example: Whenever he would be unable to attend a meeting, he e-mailed his teammates. From there, he clearly instructed employees to emulate the behavior, and eventually it became part of new-employee training. “When good behavior becomes part of the culture, it’s very hard for future employees to resist following the good habits,” Mr. Mathews says.

That said, project managers should try to “respect the culture that already exists as much as possible and not create extra work,” he adds.

Easy Does It

Despite the lure of cutting-edge communications platforms, rarely-out-of-reach smartphones and endless whiz-bang apps, Mr. Mathews tries to keep things as simple and seamless as possible.

Ultimately, virtual communications solutions must be dynamic and will vary with the size of the project team. For example, a wiki isn’t all that effective for smaller teams, he says, because “it becomes too much of an investment.” Collaborative by their very nature, wikis rely on input from an online community of users to create and customize content based on their needs. They demand sizable infra-structure, typically incorporate numerous stakeholders, and require time and money to organize and “make them nice and shiny,” he says.

Wikis do, however, “become increasingly more efficient as your team grows,” Mr. Mathews says. And in the right circumstances, they can improve knowledge management. After making a new hire earlier this year, Mr. Mathews conducted training sessions in person. “I had her read all the support tickets that I would write so she could see and understand the type of attitude and position I take,” he says. Later, though, Mr. Mathews realized a wiki made more sense as a sort of online training manual.

For teams of fewer than 15 consistent members, Mr. Mathews says group chats, supplemented by chat logs, are the best way to manage communication.

Instant messages, as it turns out, don’t require instant responses. “There are quick things you want to tell people, but they don’t necessarily need immediate attention,” he says. “That’s when we use chat. We can use it at our leisure and don’t need to stop what we’re in the middle of doing. If you miss some of the conversation, just come back online later and find out what’s happened while you were gone. It’s an effective way of keeping the team synced as much as possible.”

And although it might sound obvious and downright pedestrian in today’s tech-driven world, Mr. Mathews says he still relies on e-mail when it comes to more important matters. For one thing, it guarantees a written record, which online chatting does not.

To keep matters in order, project managers may want to create distinct mailing lists for various units on project teams. For instance, Mr. Mathews has one group e-mail list to coordinate with a team of developers.

Mr. Mathews is no Luddite, but he does insist that tech products aren’t the defining feature of managing virtual teams. “They are just a part of your toolkit, one tool among several on your belt,” he says.

Originally published in the “Case by Case” section focused on Virtual Team Leadership for the October 2010 issue of PM Network. To view the original article and artwork in PDF form, click here.
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