Virtual Team Management

Virtual teams are both increasingly common and necessary. Bid and Proposal Managers must complete the same tasks in a virtual environment that are required when managing a co-located team. Although they have the same governing principles, their effective management requires special consideration.

Introduction

As companies incorporate new technology, such as video meetings, web conference calls, and cloud computing, bid and proposal professionals often have at least one team member working virtually. A virtual team is a team in which proposal team members, including SMEs and teaming partners, are geographically distributed and interact primarily through electronic means. Virtual teams can also include peripheral team members, such as SMEs and team members from partner companies.

Virtual teams are governed by the same fundamental principles as traditional proposal teams. The difference is how the team communicates. Instead of using the full spectrum and dynamics of a face-to-face exchange, the team relies primarily on electronic communication, such as emails, faxes, teleconferences, and virtual meetings. This requires more planning and requires a strong focus on communication and team building.

Virtual proposal teams have several advantages. Virtual teams:

  • Can use time differences to be productive during other team members’ downtime
  • Increase productivity
  • Are cost-effective
  • Provide flexibility and increased knowledge sharing; organizations have more resource options when they can include anyone in the world
  • Meet green initiatives

However, virtual teams are also faced with several disadvantages, including the following:

  • Lack of social interaction
  • Lack of everyday nonverbal, face-to-face communication
  • Cultural clashes
  • Loss of team spirit
  • Feelings of isolation and restlessness
  • Overwork
  • Lack of software compatibility

In leading a virtual team, the Bid or Proposal Managers must be proactive and be a bridge between team members to build trust and create a cohesive team.

Best Practices

1. Exploit the advantages and compensate for the challenges of virtual teams.

Many organizations, Business Development Managers, and Bid and Proposal Managers prefer co-locating their entire team, but they often have little choice. Instead, they must increasingly use virtual proposal teams to offset the challenges shown in Figure 1.

Virtual Bid and Proposal Team Managers face social and technology challenges. The social challenges require managing, motivating, and coaching remote team members. The technology challenges are usually easier to address and require tools to monitor tasks, schedules, and performance quality.

Common social challenges include low individual commitment, role overload, role ambiguity, absenteeism, social loafing, and limited or conflicting management priorities. Consider, for example, these social challenges:

  • Team members in different time zones resent inconveniently scheduled meetings
  • Critical decisions are delayed because key people cannot find common meeting times
  • Email or offhand teleconference comments are misconstrued, causing confusion and distrust
  • Time and resources are wasted because multiple team members unknowingly work on the same task
  • Team members feel isolated or left out and are minimally committed to the team objective
  • Managers who do not benefit from the team’s success direct team members to work on other tasks
  • Team members can hide poor performance and then blame technology, management, lack of information, or other team members

The recommendations in subsequent guidelines will help virtual Proposal Managers overcome these challenges. Figure 1 showcases the pros and cons of working with virtual teams.

ISSUE ADVANTAGES CHALLENGES
Flexibility Rapidly form, execute, and disband teams Cumbersome to manage and motivate people over time and distance
Resources Assign the best talent available across time, space, and cultures Loss of effectiveness because of low individual commitment to team goals. Time, distance, and cultural differences can lead to miscommunication and conflict
Cost Reduce cost by eliminating travel, housing, and per diem, and assigning the lowest-cost resource. Possible cost increase because of more complex management, technology, and training
Response Time Reduce travel delays and time spent waiting for resources Possible increase in time for rework, delays, inconsistencies, conflict, and mistrust because of miscommunication

Figure 1. Advantages and Challenges of Virtual Proposal Teams. Virtual teams offer a number of advantages and challenges.

2. Create a virtual proposal center.

Because virtual teams rarely, if ever, interact face to face, they need a single, easy-to-access place to share resources and information with team members. This platform is called a “virtual proposal center” and can take many forms.

The first step to take before you hold a proposal kickoff meeting is to evaluate the RFP. Including a small team of contributors in the evaluation will add considerably to everyone’s understanding of the customer’s vision, technical content, and commercial aspect. This is vital when explaining the nature and detail of the opportunity to virtual team members later and at the kickoff meeting. A lack of understanding across the bid can lead to a disconnect in finding the solution.

Next, you will need to define what your virtual proposal center will look like. You will also need to decide what the virtual proposal center will provide, including whether it is document sharing, scheduling, version control, or estimating and pricing. You also will need to establish which features you need, including the features you want but can live without and their respective tradeoffs (e.g., low cost, full functionality, or ease of use).

A good virtual proposal center is easy to use, access, and administer. Ideally, it is a website that can push information—such as announcements, calendar features, and reminders—to team members.

If you do not already have the capability, find tools that meet your budget and have good reviews from similar organizations. Compare each tool’s features with your team’s list of requirements. Document what each tool does and how it will be used. Tools may include the following:

  • Conferencing. If not already available, find out if team members have access to a conference line. Otherwise, research available services, including Internet-based telephone services
  • Screen Sharing. This tool allows for the sharing of the display of computer screens with others. Teams can use this to incorporate comments in real time and to obtain buy-in
  • Cloud Computing/Centralized Document Sharing. There is a wide selection of services available. When selecting a cloud service, consider file size and number, accessibility, version control, and security concerns
  • Shared Calendar. Meeting invitations may be all you need. For larger teams or more complex proposals, a shared calendar keeps the team aware of critical milestones. This can be a stand-alone application or a feature of your cloud-computing tool
  • Instant Messaging (IM). An IM tool can help a team build connections as members trade ideas, brainstorm, or talk about a favorite sports team. Confirm with external team members that they can use IM tools
  • Video Screen Capture. This is a great tool for training team members. You can digitally record step-by-step instructions, including audio. The team can then download and replay tutorial videos as needed
  • Virtual Video Meeting. Virtual meetings allow everyone to interact visually. Speak slowly and clearly, and wait for everyone to finish speaking, as other team members may experience lags in the conversation because of connectivity levels. Encourage participants to speak up and ask for clarification if they miss something

The following table shows factors to consider in determining which tools to use.

  Email Conference line Screen-Sharing Tool Cloud Storage/Centralized Document Site Shared Calendar IM tool Video screen capture tool Video Conferencing
Are regular meetings required? X X X          
Do you require ability to edit documents live during conference call session? X           X  
Do you have core members who belong to a different firm and/or division? X X   X X     X
Do you lack a full team with VPN capabilities? X     X X      
Do you have a team of more than five core members? X       X     X
Are you working with team members you don’t know? X         X   X
Do you require high level of collaboration from the team? X X X X X X   X
Are multiple team members contributing to the same document? X     X   X    
Do team members work on different platforms and in different versions of software tools? X   X       X  
Do you need to train team members in process or software tools? X X X     X X  
Are you having formal proposal reviews? X X X X X     X
Is the proposal more than 100 pages or does it have extensive requirements?       X X      
Do team members need to be able to download files, modify those files, and then upload the revised documents? X     X        

Figure 2. Factors to Consider When Selecting Tools. A good virtual proposal center is easy to use, access, and administer. Compare possible tool features against your team’s requirements.

If resources are to be shared among the virtual team, find out from each company what resources they are providing, how access will be coordinated, and what the requirements are. Take the following steps to set up your virtual proposal center:

  • Define who has access to what and when
  • Set up a virtual file directory
  • Define file-naming conventions
  • Define a communication schedule, including the frequency and method team members should use to communicate
  • Create a master calendar
  • Create a technology questionnaire to determine each team member’s current knowledge of technology and available resources
  • Create video training tools, find online tools already available, or arrange for 24-hour technical support
  • Create a welcome packet that includes instructions on the virtual proposal center, tools and training, team roles and definitions, and team contact information. Send this packet to each new team member as they are brought on board

3. Select task-appropriate, easy-to-use technology.

Match technology to task complexity. Small virtual teams can be managed using email, scheduling, and word processing tools. Larger, more complex teams may require more sophisticated collaboration technology.

Virtual teams work online in a collaborative workspace. Participants’ work should be transparent and available to managers to monitor progress. Managers often need to control team members’ ability to view and modify files. Typically, team members check out files, modify those files, and then resave them in a shared workspace. While some tools allow simultaneous access to the same file, many proposals are too large for this approach.

The easier the technology is to use, the better. Team members must be comfortable with the technology before they can focus on completing the assigned tasks. Give the team hands-on tool training, not just a demonstration of the tool being used by an expert user.

The following are some recommendations for using virtual team management tools:

  • Use familiar technology as much as possible. For example, if you routinely use specific email, scheduling, and net-meeting technology, use the same technology for the proposal
  • Establish 24×7 technical support. When participants in multiple locations and time zones lose access to files and shared workspaces, they may work offline or turn in deliverables late. Even when the technologist is on duty, every team member cannot be helped simultaneously. Combat this by integrating live, online support
  • Automatically back up files daily. Time-stamp files in case you need to return to prior versions
  • Be clear and decisive about technology issues. Members perceive indecision as a weakness in proposal management. Do not tolerate member resistance on technology and tools. Even if member suggestions are valid, you lack time for discussion and adaptation
  • Establish and maintain consistent procedures. Use identical passwords, call numbers, call times, agendas, and forms
  • Consider interoperability issues. prime contractors, subcontractors, and teaming partners need to be able to work together compatibly while protecting proprietary and limited-access data. Address these issues before they affect your proposal

4. Set a foundation for clear communication.

Define the roles of each team member. List whom team members should report to, what their expertise is, and what tasks they are responsible for. This gives the team clear direction and removes ambiguity. Create a master schedule that the team can access, and keep the schedule updated in real time as priorities shift.

Ask all team members a few critical questions, including the following:

  • What hours will they work? What hours are team members available, and what are their time zones? Do they have a different definition of a workweek? For example, in the Middle East, the workweek runs from Sunday to Thursday. Plan four or more overlapping hours for team interaction, and schedule meetings during that time. Set office hours when team members can reach you and communicate those to the team.
  • What are their vacations/holiday schedules? Find out when team members are taking vacation days and when their major holidays occur, and note them on the project calendar. This allows you to work around team members’ schedules so they can enjoy their time off.
  • What is their technology level/experience? Not all team members have the same technical competency. Find out what their comfort level is so you can develop tools the whole team can work with.
  • What version of software do they run? To save major formatting issues and to ensure document stability, know what version of software each team member is using. Use the lowest common denominator as the standard.
  • What is their preferred form of communication? Team members have different preferences for communication, whether telephone, email, IM, or texting. Learn each team member’s preference, and communicate with them using that method. You will get a quicker response, and they will feel listened to.

5. Communicate clearly by email and phone.

Adapt your communication style to your corporate and team members’ local culture and, within reason, to the preferred style of the participant. Some members are sent messages that clog their email accounts, especially when they are sent to both their home and work accounts. In some cultures, team members object to messages being sent to their homes, preferring to distinctly separate work from private life.

Most team members see communication as a sign that the proposal is important, their assigned task is important, and their team leader cares. They will realize that team and organizational needs often outweigh personal preferences. In keeping with this:

  • Create messages that are short and to the point. Use informative subject lines containing key State the essence of your message in the email subject line, including any required actions or due dates
  • Keep voicemail messages under two minutes
  • Leave your return phone number at the beginning and end of your message. A good practice is to prompt the listener to prepare to write down your number by saying, “I will repeat my phone number at the end of this message.” Improve your callback rate by saying your phone number clearly and slowly, and then repeating your number. Do not assume that the listener has (or will use) a voicemail playback feature or that the caller ID will display your number
  • Limit web conferences to 30 minutes on average and never exceed 50 minutes. If you need more time, take a break, and resume the meeting or schedule another web conference to cover the remaining content
  • Consider establishing a secure team blog where participants can post questions and share information. Otherwise, questions could be unaddressed until the next meeting, directed through a management chain, or ignored

Increase the times and ways you communicate with your team and individual teammates. Schedule regular meetings at the same time and use the same method (e.g., set weekly meetings on Mondays at 10:00 a.m. using the team conference line). Assess the best time to hold meetings for maximum attendance, taking time zones into account.

At any virtual meeting or review, it is a good practice to have someone to take notes of the meeting, including what has been agreed to. As a Bid or Proposal Manager, you should send the meeting notes to your virtual team to ensure that they have a record of the outcome of each meeting. It is also a good idea to post the meeting minutes in a folder on a shared drive that everyone can access.

Schedule one-on-one calls with team members so they can be prepared to give you the best information. One-on-one check-ins may be standing meetings that are agreed upon in advance or scheduled as they become necessary. Unless the outcome is confidential, provide all team members with a schedule of expected meetings.

To improve email communication:

  • Create a proposal team distribution list using your email software. This saves time by adding recipients to emails intended for large groups. Keep it up to date so those who are no longer part of the proposal effort do not continue to receive emails from the group after their contribution has ended. (This is also a good practice from a security point of view.)
  • Create a standard email template. Develop a standard structure for your emails using plain text instead of HTML for the body and subject line. Emails are read on a range of platforms, some of which do not support formatting. Define and document when and how the team will use emoticons to clarify the emotional meaning of an email
  • Define and use a standard, informative subject line that clearly identifies the proposal. This helps the team identify your email as project communication. Train the team to use the same format in their own email subject lines. This makes it easier for you and the team to manage project-related emails
  • Put information in the body of the email rather than in attachments. Team members will access information on a variety of platforms and may not be able to open attachments or certain document types. If they have to open them later on a different platform, they are less likely to follow through. Whenever possible, put key information in the body of the email

Because virtual teams rarely have the opportunity to form in-person relationships, proposal professionals must use different techniques to strengthen communication and build rapport among teams. These techniques include the following:

  • Pick Up the Telephone. Pick up the phone and speak to all of the team members, those you already know and those you don’t. Show that you are ready to listen to them. Get to know your team and what issues or concerns they have. Learn what they do both in and out of the office
  • Act Like You Are Speaking Face-to-Face. Voice your opinions as you would in a regular meeting. This encourages the rest of your team to do the same. Consider using a headset or another device that allows you to move around during virtual meetings. Simply moving your arms and gesturing, as you might do face-to-face, greatly improves the sound of your message
  • Set Reasonable Expectations. Obtain all team members’ buy-ins on project goals. Start by articulating the common goal and explain how you intend to manage the bid to reduce their overtime. Once you set the schedule, keep it
  • Celebrate Each Milestone. At the beginning of each meeting, acknowledge team members who have met deadlines or celebrated a special event. Acknowledge the team for a successful review. Send e-cards for personal celebrations and accomplishments. Hold a virtual reward ceremony at the close of the proposal

6. Build trust early.

Virtual Bid and Proposal Managers can rapidly build and maintain trust by adapting their communication techniques to convey a clear sense of action, support, and constructive feedback. The Virtual Bid or Proposal Manager needs to overcommunicate with the team by communicating frequently, not sporadically.

Begin by defining the objectives, roles, tasks, and expectations. Trust erodes quickly if objectives, roles, tasks, or expectations are blurred, unclear, or fluid.

Balance pre-kickoff strategy and solution-development activities. Target 75 percent completion of strategy- and solution-development pre-kickoff, especially when submittal deadlines are short. This compromise supports an earlier kickoff and fosters members’ input, buy-in, acceptance, and identification with the team.v

Use communication techniques to establish high levels of trust early and to maintain trust as the proposal is prepared, as shown in Figure 3.

Techniques to Build Trust Early Techniques to Maintain Trust
Encourage non-task, social communication Communicate predictably

Set and maintain all meeting times, balancing the demands on members in different time zones

Explain every change or absence in advance

Avoid irregular, inequitable, and unpredictable communication

During a crisis, maintain near real-time communication

Maintain a consistent style and tone in all communications

Communicate optimistically and enthusiastically

Promote the team as a virtual family

Use “we”

Encourage positive comments among members

Discourage negative remarks

Develop schemes to handle task and technology uncertainty

Have three or more ways to connect with team members (email addresses, both home and work; phone numbers, work and cell; cell numbers of spouses or family members, team buddies, managers, and co-workers; IM; and perhaps social media

Develop schemes to handle task and technological uncertainty

Number and date messages and meeting notes consecutively so members can place them in context and detect missing items

Confront and promptly handle vague statements, allegations, and complaints

Publicize members’ activity and inactivity

Encourage exchanges that clarify and develop consensus

Encourage proactive action

Communicate positively, concisely, and specifically; avoid weak, vague, or equivocal statements.
(Weak: Complete in 4 or 5 days)
(Strong: Submit before 3:30 p.m. on Thursday)

State exactly how you will manage the team

First impressions are critical. Emphasize performance, not behavior

State how you will manage missed deadlines

Members tend to respond to how they are initially treated

Respond promptly, explicitly, and predictably to all messages

Low-trust teams characteristically get little feedback from managers or members

Clarify roles, procedures, and quality standards

Be unequivocal. Then transition from procedural to task focus

Assign task leadership based on skill, ability, interest, and enthusiasm

Figure 3. Team Communication Strategies Establish and Maintain High Trust. Communication with your virtual proposal team and members’ communication among themselves are the only means that you have to develop and maintain the trust needed to prepare a winning proposal.

7. Conduct virtual reviews.

The types of reviews your team has should not differ from those of an in-person bid or proposal team. What does change is the method you use to conduct the review.

Kickoff Meeting

The kickoff meeting has the same structure as a formal in-person meeting. For virtual teams, kickoff meetings are especially important. Prepare a clear agenda, draft executive summary, proposal plan, win themes, competitor intelligence, and other analyses, and demonstrate your enthusiasm and depth of knowledge about the customer and the opportunity.

Your tone of voice is essential. It should convey good organization and calm determination while being upbeat about winning. State the strategic benefits of success to the participating organizations and your customer. This gives your team members confidence in the leadership of the effort and encourages them to share your enthusiasm for preparing the winning bid, even if they are not physically present. A dull presentation, in contrast, will have the opposite effect.

If possible, arrange for as many team members as possible to be physically present for the kickoff. At a minimum, schedule a teleconference line and a screen-sharing tool. If you can, use video conferencing so the team members can become acquainted.

Add a training session to the agenda to demonstrate how the team will use the virtual proposal center as well as how to access training tools or 24-hour support. You can also set up a training session using the partially completed content plans you have prepared for each response, which should be set up in the format stipulated by your customer. This may include prompts for SMEs to insert specific section win themes, consider the competition, start thinking about graphics, and so forth.

Team members can be coached briefly over the conference line so that the virtual team starts off on the same page and has a common understanding of the approach or process and when and how templates will be used. Templates will help team members develop content using a single voice, even though they are not physically working together.

Daily Stand-Up Review

Depending on the schedule, team availability, and complexity, the daily stand-up review can take several forms. For small or fast-track proposals, the review can consist of a daily email. For larger teams, use a teleconference line and screen-sharing tools or a video conference for more formal meetings.

The daily stand-up review keeps everyone in touch with the bid and makes sure that they are engaged. Individual members may be called upon to report on the progress of their aspect of the work. Avoid involved conversations about single issues, and keep the momentum, noting items that need indepth follow-up afterward to make sure that they do not hold up progress. Bring sufficient information to the meeting to support easy decisionmaking.

Figure 4 is an example of an effective daily stand-up review conducted via email.


Figure 4. Email Daily Stand-Up Review. For short-turnaround proposals, email can effectively serve as the daily stand-up review.

Document Reviews

The type and frequency of reviews you hold will depend on the schedule and complexity of the proposal. You can hold full virtual meetings or peer-to-peer reviews in which reviewers independently evaluate documents.

Once you define the number, type, and method to use, confirm with the reviewers their availability, their familiarity with the review format, and their proficiency with any tools or software. If team members do not know how to use a particular tool, work out how they will submit their comments.

For the review itself, send an instructional email. Clearly define the purpose of the review and the process the review will follow, and describe what the final product should look like. Before uploading or mailing the review documents, create a clean copy and rename the file. If using certain word processing programs, accept all changes in the document. If the file is small, send it with the email. If it is a large file, use a document file-sharing tool.

For a peer-to-peer review, include instructions and deadline information detailing how and by when comments are due. Schedule 24 to 48 hours for reviewers to respond. Afterward, contact each reviewer to confirm that he or she has received your email and will meet the deadline.

8. Closeout projects upon completion.

Establish when to close the virtual proposal center if it’s not defined by your information technology (IT) department. Move or archive documents and files to an internal file storage system. Then remove all access rights for team members.

Common Pitfalls and Misconceptions

Insufficient infrastructure and communication

Problems can arise among virtual teams when technology fails to work for all team members, or when team members are not trained on the proper use of the tools. Team leaders should be sure to adapt communication methods and structures for virtual team environments and formalize principles by which virtual teams should operate, including performance standards.

Failing to build rapport among team members

Be sure to regularly acknowledge all team members. Otherwise, they may feel that their contributions are not sufficiently valued, which could, in turn, affect the quality of the finished bid. Building rapport can be difficult without verbal/nonverbal and physical cues. Set an example of mutual respect in how you moderate meetings, teleconferences, and other communications.

Summary

  • Virtual teams have the same goals and are governed by the same principles as traditional bid and proposal teams. What differs is simply the ways in which they communicate
  • When leading a virtual bid or proposal team, build trust and rapport early through regular communication and interaction
  • Picking up the phone and speaking to people is ideal. Encourage contributors to do the same, and make sure that all team members have a current contact list
  • A virtual bid or proposal center provides a central “hub” where your team can access and share project information
  • Other digital tools, such as screen sharing and video conferencing, can facilitate communication among team members
  • When managing virtual teams, Bid or Proposal Managers should keep in mind considerations such as differing time zones, software compatibility issues, and team members’ familiarity with various technologies

Terms to Know

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