I like to call VPM sweetly as very problematic management, mostly due to the fact that it has many of these little problems that can easily translate into huge loss if badly handled. You may as: allright, as a regular PM you face the same challenge. Yes. And No.
Virtual Project Manager has no “real” team in house, so the lack of communication should be compensated with even bigger dose of trust - specialists from top business schools used to advise. Right. For me, personally, it failed dramatically. You can not be completely people centered as a VPM, specially when talking about huge teams geographically disperse. You have to be tasks oriented: clear, helpful, concise and demanding. Than you can be cool and understanding, of course, but it is the project that comes first.
Being a virtual team leader
I was going to skip the universally known definitions of WHAT is a virtual team, since even if someone doesn´t know the exact Peterson & Stohr one, can probably guess that there is a purpose (project) and people (team), globally dispersed, that work together towards achieving a goal related to the project. So far so good. We have a great theory, a bunch of technology that is helpful in communication and actual task management, but then comes the first big problem: Lack of understanding of the task in a percentage of the team. You applied Einstein's principle of making everything as simple as possible, but not simpler, you sent clear and concise email with clear direction, there were no questions and then, out of the sudden, the task is badly done. What went wrong?
Well, maybe nothing. Sometimes you just have to assume that some part of the team will perform worse than others. But if it is an important part of the team that had issue, that you should double check the implementation of the following suggestions.
How have I done it and why it always “depends”
There is absolutely no strict recommendations in terms of effective VTM. It will always depend on many factors: the structure of the team, culture of the company, budget, location, type of project, among many others. I worked managing virtual teams that both know, and did not know, each other, and the rule I decided to apply after many failures and observations was for them not to know, nor interact, with each other, maintaining communication with team leader and managers.
That obviously asks for some clarification: it will depend on the team, always. In this case, the job to be done was little demanding, highly repetitive and, to be honest, quite boring. That leads to many possibilities of people willing to cheat the system, for example, by subcontracting others and paying them less, creating the pyramid, etc. if wanted. This is precisely why I implemented complete monitorization of the process: anyone can be checked any time during the day with Skype call, the platform tracks exact times of submission of the tasks and everyone has to communicate if absent for more than 15 minutes. Before I decided to do it this way, I read many wise books on effective administration where the flexibility and people orientation were shining like a giant star in the vast universe of management, and I thought “Wow, that is the way I want to do stuff. No supervision, total trust, complete transparency, team building, mutual understanding and thrive for the best in the project”. In my executive uthopy I was already seeing everyone waking up super motivated, sitting in their home offices, spreading pure happiness around their households for another sunny day being able to work with my magnificent projects, knowing that they had flexibility, trust, attention, and could schedule their life as wanted, with my blessing for (almost) everything they might dream of. Unfortunately, that did not end up very well, since illusions are usually not a reflect of reality: duplicate content, false emails for linkbuilding, disappearances and multiple, sudden hardware failures were only some of the problems that arose on the idyllic ground of my perfect board. That gave birth to an insightful moment of reflection, which led to the beginning of a new era, an era of scheduling, monitorization and double checking. Oh, there is still flexibility, but there are rules to be obeyed as well.
But this is so, so bad!
Again: There is no universal truth in VPM, and there is no just and only one good way of doing stuff. I would never recommend this strategy to work with designers or engineers, among many others. There are different delivery methods for every purpose, and different leadership needs to be applied for different teams and even team members within the team. Sit down, look at your team, think of the goal and apply the strategy that will help you meet it in the best way. Remember though about a few basics:
Of course, with small teams on a long term, you can apply all the awesome techniques of interactions, challenges, competitions and relationships within team members, but I would think about the goal and structure before, and apply this into specific cases, above all, when occasional meetings face to face are possible.