How do you know if you have a virtual team? The answer is rather simple: if you have at least one person on your team who's not in physical proximity to the rest of the team, you have a virtual team. It's that easy to make the distinction.
Let's say you manage a colocated, or in-person, team, and you make an accommodation to have one of your employees work from another location for several months to take care of an ailing parent. Guess what? You have a virtual team.
On the other extreme, let's say you're an entrepreneur and you're assembling a crack team of engineers, designers, and marketing gurus from all over the world. You have no physical headquarters; no city your company can call home. You're definitely a virtual team!
Virtual teams are groups of people who work from different geographical locations. Since workers are dispersed across different cities, states, and countries, virtual teams rely on tools like video conferencing, messaging apps, and collaboration software to work together.
Just like in the above examples, whether you have one employee working remotely or many, you have a virtual team.
The techniques for building successful virtual teams are not terribly different from those for colocated teams. Communication is the biggest hurdle to overcome.
What's your most important task as the leader of any team? Make sure expectations are clear. Without stating them, it's nearly impossible to ensure that people can rise up and meet them. What strategy is everyone working toward? What are the team's goals?
How many times have you been part of a team for which the expectations and goals are poorly defined? It's no fun, and it can definitely take the joy out of work.
Okay, your team is fully aware of the expectations. They're aligned to the team's goals. Great! Now, trust your team to deliver. The ingredients in this trust equation are simple:
Your team will need to collaborate to get work done. When your team is virtual, it's far more difficult to "drop by and say hello" in the middle of the day. It's hard to ask a "quick question" over your colleague's shoulder when their shoulder is miles away. Make it clear to the entire team when you expect people to be available for synchronous collaboration. Teams that cross time zones will need to agree on some common hours during which daily meetings or smaller break-out sessions can happen.
Meetings can also require deliberate planning, especially if your team is dispersed across time zones. Daily check-ins, even if for just 15 minutes, can help people feel like they're part of something bigger. Before you schedule that meeting, though, make sure it'll be meaningful to everyone who's attending. If your team is allocated to two very separate projects, you really have two teams. Treat them as such, and have two daily check-ins: one for each project.
Before you schedule any other meeting, though, consider carefully: do you really need it? If you're just telling people something or getting a status update, there are likely better ways to get that information.
Fewer meetings mean less context switching for your team. My mornings can be a minefield of meetings -- I constantly strive to minimize them. I work at a coworking space most afternoons and block my calendar accordingly. Most days, this guarantees me 2-3 hours of uninterrupted time. It's perfect for getting into flow, and those are my most productive hours of the day.
Asynchronous communication is key to making your virtual team efficient and productive. By keeping goals, decisions and status persistently documented, your entire team can be on the same page wherever they are. Another major benefit of virtual teams is the ability to work efficiently across time zones. I've worked on teams where development or support occurs 24 hours a day, following the sun around the globe. It can be magical to work on something during your workday, pass your ball to someone halfway around the world to continue, and come back the next morning and see immense progress.
How often should your team come together in person? And for what purpose? Depending on the composition and location of your team, it may be practical to have periodic in-person gatherings.
Two to four times per year seems to be a good frequency, but your dynamic may call for something different. In-person collaboration can spark innovation and creativity. Random conversations can forge stronger personal bonds.
I once had a manager who expected me to be onsite once a week. It was too frequent, and I spent too much time context switching and planning the next trip or recovering from the prior trip. Conversely, I had another manager who let me stay away for nine months. That was way too long! Find the sweet spot for in-person collaboration that'll be most effective for your team.
Lastly, create opportunities for people to collaborate outside the context of their actual work. Whether it's creating opportunities in your collaboration platform for people to converse about their hobbies or personal lives, or allowing for casual interaction before a meeting starts, these moments can really help a team come together and know each other as people.
I recently attended a virtual Workplaceless event where they did a wonderful job fostering community. Part of the session was unstructured conversation in breakout rooms. The conversation started with a simple topic, but the casual freewheeling conversation that ensued was priceless.
Training is a valuable tool for virtual teams. Invest in continuous learning for all of your employees. Skills-based training can directly translate to job performance. Equally important are soft skills like leadership, teamwork, communication, productivity, stress management, and interpersonal skills.
I've focused on being a life-long learner for my entire career. While I enjoyed the practical nature of usability certification for web design, I think I got more out of seminars on leadership, effective communication, and negotiation.
At the end of the day, we're all people. We all have things that interest us outside of work. Things we love. Other things we dislike. Hopes. Fears. Don't lose sight of the fact that your virtual team is comprised of people, just like you.
Get to know them as you go through the routine of work. And use team-building strategies to create a sense of community. It takes more effort when you're not in the same room, but it's worth it. Are they at risk of burnout? Are they happy? Are they lonely? What can you do to help them?
What tools does your virtual team need? There will certainly be some niche tools based on your specific industry, but there's a core set that any virtual team will benefit from. Tools wax and wane in popularity.
Depending on the features you need, one product may edge out another. I hesitate to make specific product recommendations here for that reason, but the categories of what you'll need won't change much.
So that's it! Clearly communicate what's expected of your team. Give them the tools they need to succeed. Trust them. Get to know them as people. Make sure you're doing everything you can to help them thrive!
Looking for more? Check out these tips for fostering inclusivity on your team next.
About the Author: Scott Dawson lives in Trumansburg, New York. He has worked remotely for 21 years and moderates a weekly Twitter chat (#remotechat) for remote workers. His recently-published book, The Art of Working Remotely, is available at artofworkingremotely.com/book.