In today's wired world, volunteers can make significant contributions to an organization, even if they live tens, hundreds, or thousands of miles away. Working virtually, volunteers can be just as effective (or as ineffective) as those working on site, provided they are able to manage their time and priorities, have adequate technology, and are given the
Tips for Leading Volunteers in a Virtual Environment
Below are a few tips for supporting virutal teamwork. These tips will help those who work in the same office, too.
- Clarify Team and Individual Goals – Make sure that everyone understands the goals and objectives for the project or service (including deadlines) and how their work contributes to the organization's overall success. Have the team work together, using a participatory decision-making process (check out People and Planet's excellent overview), to develop and agree upon goals that are achievable and make sense.
- Highlight the Skills of Each Team Member – To build confidence and trust, take time to describe the unique talents each person brings to the table with the others.
- Allow Time for Interpersonal Sharing – Encourage team members to share something about their personal lives beyond volunteering. This helps members find commonalities and knits together trusting relationships with people who find common ground.
- Share and Rotate Leadership – Appoint an overall leader, but share leadership for project stages or meetings with individuals who have the most knowledge or information at the current moment.
- Establish Communication Norms – As a group, set up basic guidelines for frequency and types of communications as well when and how to alert others about availability. This is particularly important for volunteers who, because of their schedules, will most often communicate asynchronously. Set up a regular schedule to meet as a team, but also allow the flexibility informal “just in time” interactions between individuals or small groups, both online and on land.
- Meet In-Person, Too – Some team activities are difficult to accomplish without being able to facilitate rapid discussion and read body language. For tasks like strategic project planning, problem solving and celebrating, bring the team together for a team meeting.
- Promote Healthy Boundaries – Encourage volunteers to maintain a productive work-life balance and let them know they are NOT expected to check email when they are off duty. Refrain from sending texts to volunteers unless they agree or in emergency situations.
- Establish a Code of Conduct – Although volunteers may not be working in your office, they are representing your organization when they are on duty. Communicate clear standards for confidentiality, volunteer and staff privacy, email, social media communications, and ethics. These guidelines need to be reinforced regularly.
A second element of effective management of off site volunteers is, of course, the technology that is used to facilitate communication, resource sharing, and collaboration. The software you use doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated, but it does need to meet the team’s minimum needs and be easy to navigate. Here are a few tips to consider:
- Maintain a Shared Calendar – Use Google Calendar or other software to communicate when volunteers will, and will not, be working as well as task due dates. Also, send team meeting notices via email, so that volunteers can download to their personal calendars, if they so wish.
- Use Group Video Chatting – Software like Skype and Google Meet Ups allow individuals and teams to view each other during meetings. This adds more interest that telephonic calls and allows participants to physically point to sections of documents as well as read facial expressions.
- Use Screen Sharing – To take it a step further, there are a number of free and fee-based screen sharing tools that can be used to share, and even collaborate on, documents in live time.
- Set Up Separate Emails – Instead of using their private email, have volunteers set up a free email address, such as Gmail or Hotmail so that their privacy is protected. This is especially important if they work directly with the public. If you are contacted by clients who receive assistance from volunteers, set up a general inbox that specific volunteers are assigned to check on specific days of the week.
- Store Documents Online – Google Drive and Wikispaces are two platforms that allow approved users to post and view shared documents. Be sure to establish a file naming protocol the team will use to keep track of multiple versions and edits over time, as well as final documents. Make sure you store both documents that are in development and your basic assets, like your logo, mission statement, templates, etc. – as well as current team contact info – in one, well-organized place.
- Set Up A Project Management System – Once you have your project plan decided and tasks assigned, have team members add their key milestones and tasks to the team calendar. If the calendar is integrated into a project management system all the better. There are several free options you can chose from, and all have integrated file sharing and management, project chat/email communications, a tasks tracking function, and a shared calendar.
Now that I've shared my ideas. What are your favorite tools and tactics to manage off site volunteer teams? Share them in the comments link below.