A virtual office should use a daily status-report system. Every workday, every member of the team sends a short email to everyone else in the team.
Daily Status Reports in the Virtual Office
These status reports keep the whole team in touch. Since everyone works at different locations, they don't have the usual water-cooler or hallway chat as a way to find out what's going on. These daily emails make sure everyone knows what everyone else is doing.
Status reports are really misnamed. They are really interesting-fact sheets. Every worker gets stuck on some little problems each day, or discovers interesting solutions to problems, or discovers a piece of gossip that the others will want to know. Vacations are preannounced here too.
Really, what one usually thinks of as "status", namely how an individual's current work on task is proceeding, is only a small part of these reports. Such status must be included only so that the rest of the team can coordinate with that work; not for checking up on whether the worker is working. If someone is going to goof off, there's no way of stopping it, so this isn't an attempt to try. For coordination though, these reports are invaluable. For instance, if Kim is working on module A and is half done, it may be helpful for Will to know that just in case he's considering changing something in that section of the product, so that he can see it'd be more efficient to wait a couple days.
Status reports are also useful to the team's management for seeing what is going on. They make it possible to check on general progress throughout the team without having to have a phone conversation for the purpose each day. It works out to be faster for the worker to send a status report than it would be to get into a conversation each day with the manager. It is of course much faster for the manager to use status reports too, but that's of secondary importance, since the purpose of a manager is to help the worker get work done.
Finally, status reports can be helpful to the worker and manager weeks later, often at the end of a monthly work cycle, to figure out where the worker's time went, so as to improve his/her time efficiency.
A small but helpful detail: it's good to identify the most major subject in a status report in the subject line of the email, it helps when people reply to it so that the thread has a relevant title.
A common danger signal is when a team member stops sending daily reports. This looks to the rest of the team like that person has just gone to working 2-hour days or is on vacation, but usually it really means the person is late in delivering something, is working every free moment, and feels so pressured that s/he doesn't have the 5 minutes to write a status report. And besides, s/he doesn't want to announce to everyone that s/he is late on the delivery.
The sad thing is, these are the times when status reports are most useful. Management can see such trouble spots and bring more resources to bear. So it's important to train the workers to send in a status report even at such tense times. They should feel free to send very short reports on these tense days, something that can be written in one minute or less and doesn't lose much face, for instance "Still working on the darned feature X".
It's best, but not always possible, for the team members to send the status reports at the end of the work day, or near the end. That way any problems that are mentioned in the report can be answered by others on the team before work begins the next day. The overnight period is a valuable resource in the email world because with a geographically distributed team, someone is working at practically any hour. That is, answers to an end-of-day message appear effectively instantaneously as far as work time for the questioner is concerned, whereas answers to a beginning-of-day question often take half the questioner's a work day to be answered, often too late to be of any use because the questioner has already solved the problem for him/herself by then.
Status reports are broadcast within a group, but are not meant to be sent outside the group. They are private information, and everyone in the group relies on the others not to spill the beans outside. Only if the priviledged status of the reports is protected will they reach their full value, as only if everyone can speak openly will the really useful "I'm falling behind because Fred X in IS is a jerk" sorts of messages reach the supervisor.
Although it's a mistake for a worker to forward someone else's status report outside the group without checking whether the originator approves of the idea, it is a particular mistake for the supervisor to do so. Often a supervisor will think "well, I'll just forward to Fred this message about how he's screwing us up and he'll straighten out". Wrong! Fred will get mad when he sees how people are talking about him, seeing the unmitigated wording of a status report, and will be less helpful next time. The supervisor's job is to read these reports, then to write appropriately worded messages to people like Fred outside the group, as needed. It might save a couple minutes to just forward the complaining status report to Fred but it's a bad move no matter how you look at it.
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March 25, 1996: created.
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