Virtual teams have become a fact of work life and will only get more popular in the future as we head towards a global workforce. So what does it take to make them operate effectively?
Here are a few basic principles to follow to help your virtual teams work together.
Get the team together physically
Do this early on in the team’s establishment if you can. It may seem paradoxical to say on the topic of virtual teams. However, face-to-face communication is still better than virtual when it comes to building relationships and fostering trust. This is an essential foundation for successful teamwork.
However, this is not always possible. If you can’t do it, just focus on doing some virtual team building. If you can get them together, use the time to help team members get to know each other better, personally and professionally. Create a shared vision and set of guiding principles for how the team will work. Schedule the in-person meeting early on in the team’s development and regularly reconnect if possible.
Clarify goals, roles, tasks and processes
You need to align the team on goals, roles and responsibilities in the first 90 days. With virtual teams, because members are not co-located, you need to also focus on specifics of task design and the processes used to complete them.
Make sure there is clarity about the work process, with specifics on who does what and when. Simplify all the work processes. Do regular after-action reviews to assess how things are going and identify process adjustments and training needs.
Establish a communication agreement
Communication on virtual teams is less frequent and less productive than face to face interactions. Often contextual cues and information about emotional states are missed. The only way to avoid these pitfalls is to be extremely clear and disciplined about how the team will communicate.
Be clear on the norms of behaviour when participating in virtual meetings.
Examples include limiting background noise and side conversations, talking clearly and at a reasonable pace, listening attentively and not dominating the conversation.
Leverage communication technologies
Select the best technologies for the task and have everyone on the same systems. Don’t sacrifice reliability in a quest to be cutting edge or on top of the newest trend. If the team has to battle to get connected or wastes time making elements of the collaboration work, the system is not worth keeping.
Build a team with rhythm
It is easy to get disconnected from the normal rhythms of work-life when all team members are working separately. As a team leader, be disciplined in creating and enforcing rhythms in virtual teamwork. Establish and share meeting agendas in advance. Don’t place all the time-zone burden on the same team members. Create a regular rotation of meeting times to distribute the load equitably.
Agree on a shared language
Virtual teams are often cross-cultural, and this magnifies communication challenges. Particularly when members think they are speaking the same language. You usually have to ensure there is a shared understanding across the cultures as there are very divergent interpretations amongst even native English speakers.
When the work is technical, the languages of the science provides a solid foundation for understanding. But when teams work on tasks that are more creative and hold ambiguity, you need to explicitly negotiate agreement on shared interpretations of essential words and phrases. This can be as simple as ‘yes’ and ‘no‘.
Make it clear that if any member is not sure what is being communicated, they have the space to ask for clarification without feeling belittled.
Create a virtual water cooler
This is a metaphor for informal interactions that share information and reinforce social bonds. If these opportunities are not available for the virtual team, important information may not be shared, and team cohesion may weaken. This can simply be achieved by starting each team meeting with a check-in. Have each member take a few minutes to discuss what they are doing, what’s going well and what’s challenging them. You can also do regular virtual team-building exercises to inject a bit of fun into the meeting.
Clarify and track commitments
Use virtual boards that are visible to all team members on your chosen collaborative platform to keep up with everyone’s commitments and track progress through the project.
Practice shared leadership
This is always difficult in a virtual team, but attempt to find ways to involve others in leading the team.
- Assign responsibility for special projects, or get members to coach others in their areas of expertise.
- Assign mentors to onboard new team members or ask them to run a virtual team-building exercise.
By sharing leadership, you will increase engagement across the team.
Schedule the 1:1’s
These are not only essential for performance management and coaching interactions but fundamental in making any team function. Make these interactions a part of the virtual team rhythm, using them to keep members connected to the vision and highlight their valued contribution to the team.
If you are taking over an established team, take the time to understand how your predecessor led. In particular, take the time to find out how communication and coordination of work happened as this will play a massive impact on the team’s performance going forward.
It’s essential that newly appointed leaders work with their teams, and study the past to define how they are going to move forward.