Nearly half of organizations use virtual teams. This means people in different locations, different time zones, with different communication styles, cultures, and norms working together. The use of virtual teams is even higher for companies with global operations. Despite this, it is rare to see any college course cover the basics of virtual collaboration. So, most skills are learned on the job – and not learned very well.
Below are five general best practices for creating an effective virtual team experience:
1. Kick It Off Right
When you’re ready to get started, kick off the project right with a kick-off meeting. The only goal here is to create energy, excitement, and buy-in to the project overall. It would be great if you can get buy-in from senior leadership as well to spend some time in front of the team. Even if your team is working remotely, have this meeting face-to-face if possible. Seeing people in person allows a different level of sociality that allows the team to get to know each other better. Regardless of how or where the kick-off meeting takes place, be sure to include the following:
- Social time. This is important to allow people to get to know each other and build commitment to the project. It is more difficult to ignore others when you have established a relationship with them, so don’t skip over this part.
- Overview of the project, goals, possibilities, etc. You want the members of the team to be excited. Don’t be ambiguous or vague. Answer questions and give them a clear, transparent picture of the objective and timeline if possible.
- Assign roles and responsibilities to each team member.
- Determine what technologies will be used by each member of the team
- Establish a future schedule for ongoing team meetings.
2. Use a Collaboration Portal
When you work in the same office, you can simply walk over to a team member’s office and “check-in.” If your team member is across the globe with an 8-hour time difference, “checking in” is a little more difficult. A collaboration portal should be your number one tool to manage the day-to-day activities of your entire time. Choose a portal that allows you to provide support, solve problems and includes these key features:
- Upload and share status reports
- Ask questions in a forum or message board area.
- Project schedule/timeline
- Project documentation
- Document sharing capabilities/whiteboarding
Depending on your situation, a variety of technologies may be used. For example, email can be effective for sharing information and getting questions answered but it’s not the best tool for
ongoing conversation, problem-solving or decision making. The team would be better served by using a collaboration site or chat room for such situations.
3. Don’t Let Storms Linger
The second stage of Tucker’s Four Stages of Team Development is aptly named, “storming”. This phase is where there is conflict, lack of motivation, disengagement, and failing to meet objectives. This phase will happen every single time – the only difference is how long your team stays here. As the team leader, it’s your job to help the team move through the storm and get to the other side. Ensure that team members are listening to each other, sharing vital information, and participating in discussions. As the team leader, regularly reach out to your virtual team members both as a group and in one-on-one conversations. It is essential to keep tabs on virtual team members to ensure that whatever storms arise and are handled immediately so they do not derail an entire project.
4. Make Your Meetings Worthwhile
As you prepare and facilitating virtual team meetings, make sure each one is essential, and each team member is included. There are a few best practices for holding meetings for virtual teams that will encourage positive collaboration:
- Alternate times for team meetings to accommodate differences in time zones.
- Consider audio recordings for those who cannot attend.
- Determine meeting goals at the beginning of the meeting and keep that goal in mind throughout the discussion.
- Always use an agenda and stick to it – including timing limits.
- Start each meeting with the highest priority items and end with less important “housekeeping” type items.
- Include time at the end with 5 to 10 minutes set aside for each team member to share one last item/thought/idea.
- Send the agenda ahead of time to all participants
- Test the meeting technology
- Assign a timekeeper and a note-taker.
5. Get Personal
Teams work best when everyone feels like they are a valuable contributing member that is noticed and appreciated. There are a hundred different ways you can achieve this; some are more successful than others. Here are a few ideas:
Start each Monday with a question to enable team members to continue to develop relationships through learning something new about each other on a regular basis.
- Keep regular one-on-one check-in meetings with each member of the team.
- Use food delivery services like Door Dash or UberEATS to deliver lunch to each team member and have a casual lunch meeting over video conference. (Better yet, have lunch
- for the whole family delivered to show your employee how much you appreciate them and the sacrifice they are making to work from home).
- Acknowledge milestones, birthdays, anniversaries, illness, or family struggles of your team members. Keeping track of the little things can go a long way.
- If you notice that a team member hasn’t been attending meetings or has been less active, reach out to them to offer support or answer any questions.
Having a personal relationship with your team will allow you to have an early warning on issues that are more difficult to see virtually. If you spent time with the team and encourage relationships, you will find that you can get the support back as well.
Learning to work together as a team does not happen overnight. For virtual teams, the process is often longer and more difficult. At the end of the project, capture lessons learned from the team. Certainly, we want to measure whether the project delivered what it was intended to, on budget and on time; but don’t forget to evaluable the inner workings of the team to continue improving in the future because chances are, virtual teams are here to stay.
Abudi, G. (2012). Best practices for managing and developing virtual project teams. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2012—North America, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute