How many of you want to work virtually, but don’t? How many of you are responsible for managing a virtual team? How many of you are happy with how your virtual team is run? How many of your aren’t sure if your virtual efforts are effective because you don’t know what a virtual-by-design company looks like?
We’re with you, we’ve been there, and we’re here to provide insight into what it takes to build an effective virtual team and set you—and your employees—up for success.
The Virtual Landscape
Advances in technology has given companies a great opportunity to offer employees more of what they want: flexibility and autonomy. Half of American employees hold a job that is compatible with telework and these aren’t just tech-companies. Companies like Dell, Aetna, Google, Salesforce, IBM, RedHat, American Heart Association, New York Life, Automatic, Lockheed Martin, JetBlue, Xerox, and even Wendy’s have implemented strong virtual workforces. We believe there is opportunity for almost all jobs—even those in the retail, production, and transportation industries—to incorporate some remote work.
As a 100% virtual company, we’ve enjoyed cost and talent benefits like having access to personnel anywhere, reducing overhead costs, not having to rent or maintain office space, and being able to service clients across the country. We even have a “bring your own device” policy. This allows our employees to work on the platforms they like best, eliminates our hardware costs, and completely streamlines the onboarding process (no more spending your first week on the job working with IT to get your computer up and running). And—we won’t lie—we love that we aren’t spending hours on the beltway anymore (and incurring those parking and fuel costs!), we can wear what we want, we have a solid work-life balance, and that we were featured in Forbes for the sustainability of our business model.
That being said…working virtually isn’t for everyone and it takes a different strategy and approach to be effective.
Common objections (and pitfalls) to virtual teams
There are some legitimate reasons when going virtual doesn’t work—for example you’re working with classified information or need to use tools or physical objects to accomplish your duties. But…outside of those constraints…most common objections and areas of risk can be mitigated. We’ll bust the following myths and give you actionable strategies to ensure your virtual team is a success:
- Our culture just won’t work virtually.
- It’s so much easier to walk down the hall.
- We won’t know if people are really
- We don’t have the tools needed to work virtually.
- We are more efficient face-to-face.
Elements of Virtual Success
A successful virtual team begins with having the right processes and systems in place to garner buy-in, then building communication channels, and finally sustaining the enterprise with a solid technological infrastructure.
Deciding you want to be virtual on the fly doesn’t work well. It takes a little planning and visualization of how the team will work together. This includes a phased roll-out and getting buy-in from your executive team, peers, and coworkers.
As you begin thinking about transition to a virtual environment, ask yourself:
- Will there be different policies for different departments/divisions/locations in your company?
- How will existing processes and workflows change?
- What outcomes do you want to achieve?
- What limitations do you have?
- How will you know if this is successful? How will you know when it is not?
It’s important to realize that while you might be all-in to go virtual, not everyone is cut out to work remotely. The best virtual employees are independent self-starters, organized, highly accountable, and can communicate in multiple mediums. You can screen for these attributes in interviews and build the competencies of existing staff.
Start by using virtual tools during training, recruiting, and interviewing. These include online recruiting portals, SharePoint, online scheduling, and online training like Lynda.com. We stopped doing in-person interviews for 99% of our roles because we needed to see how applicants interact virtually. Ask yourself throughout the process:
- How are they on the phone? On video? On email?
- Can they use virtual tools? How proficient are they?
- How are their writing skills? Do they understand the nuances of tone when writing? Many methods—whether IM, text, email, or chat—will require employees to write easy-to-understand, to the point, and engaging communications.
Everyone must have an environment that fosters productivity. This means making sure you carve out a dedicated space for your home office or workspace and you have the necessary tools and systems to help you focus and thrive.
- Use a secure Internet/WiFi.
- Have a dedicated room with a closed door.
- Setup an ergonomically friendly desk and chair.
- Invest in a capable printer and scanner.
- Add task lighting and take advantage of natural light. Everyone can have their own corner office!
- Set aside dedicated storage and supplies within reach.
- Connect to a large monitor(s), keyboard, mouse.
- Have a paper shredder.
- Rely on insecure public internet connections.
- Work in your dining room, den or Starbucks.
- Use a coffee table, the floor or any other setup that will wreak havoc on your body.
- Underestimate the need to print and scan. Color laser is very affordable nowadays!
- Neglect your vision and the need for sunlight.
- Scrounge for supplies in your kids’ room.
- Relay on a small screen to be productive.
- Keep sensitive documents laying around or in the trash.
One of the top reasons cited against going virtual—and we’ll admit it’s also one of the biggest challenges of running virtual teams—is building, maintaining, and promoting a virtual culture.
When we make work locations agnostic and remove the brick and mortar…the tendency to distrust and take on an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality can creep in. Success starts with realizing that everyone—even remote employees—need to feel like they’re part of a team. Success also starts from the top—leaders should exemplify behaviors they want proliferated: over communicate, praise good work frequently, set and keep 1:1 meetings, be accessible and responsive, and have a work/life balance themselves.
Leaders also benefit from promoting a culture that rewards productivity, not timecard punching. Think about developing roles around tasks and responsibilities, not 40 hour work weeks. There’s no magic in 9-5…the magic is in the work that gets done.
You’ll also want to make sure you treat time-zones equally and don’t unintentionally penalize time-zones with unrealistic meeting times (i.e. 6am PT/9am ET; 5pm PT/8pm ET meetings). We’ve found having multiple times-zones to be a blessing—we know we always have a few hours of complete overlap in high productivity hours AND we’re able to extend hours earlier and later to accommodate clients.
Finally, you’ll want to create your own watercooler or virtual environment where people can connect. This encourages informal conversations, builds camaraderie, and allows relationships to develop. It also allows employees to have a work-specific outlet to connect. This is important because some employees might want to keep work and personal life separate and would hesitate to connect with colleagues over social media and text.
Creating openness across your organization is instrumental for building trust and increasing productivity—regardless if you’re operating in a traditional work environment or virtual. Transparency is a dynamic aspect of your business and should happen at every level, every interaction, and every aspect of your processes. Take some time to think about where you’re currently operating in terms of transparency—do you share your schedule, short-term goals, and strategic tasks with your team?—if not, or if you’d like to start, try incorporating some of these best practices into your day and encouraging your staff to do the same.
- Leverage action item lists with status and deadlines.
- Use online communication tools to show your availability.
- Use pictures or headshots for your online company profiles. We want to see who you are!
- Hold daily huddles and weekly status checks.
- Use CC and BCC for passive transparency.
- Be honest about your schedule and constraints.
Team meeting rhythm
One way to build transparency is to establish a predictable and efficient meeting rhythm. Ask yourself:
- What do I need to know about daily, weekly, quarterly, and annually to be productive?
- What do I need to communicate—and when—to help my team feel engaged and aligned with the overall mission?
- How long should meetings be (different meetings can have different durations) and what format (in-person, virtual, online, etc.) would fulfil the objective?
Set operating standards and expectations
Maximize effectiveness—while at the same time giving people the freedom and innovation to complete tasks to the best of their ability—by having a set of standards and expectations across your virtual enterprise. For example, you may use multiple communication channels and think it’s intuitive what the defined points of contact and escalation points are. But, it saves time and stress to make it clear what tool is used for what and who to escalate what to. As part of this, you will also want to think about establishing norms for what “good” virtual communication looks like and agree on corporate “lexicon.” You may love a casual and fun vibe across instant messaging…but require a buttoned-up and professionally polished tone in email and video. Don’t assume everyone will get it—make sure your staff knows and is on-board with these expectations. Here are some other ways you can set standards in a virtual environment:
- Define tasks and activities in parallel with roles.
- Clarify and track commitments.
- Foster shared leadership and accountability.
Tools for communicating
Let’s be real: communication can be a challenge in any team. We know how it feels when everyone is out of pocket, unresponsive, or unengaged. But…we also know how it feels to operate on all cylinders: everyone is high-energy, focused on collaboration, and truly enjoying working with each other. In a virtual environment, it’s even more important to have the right tools to communicate…and make sure you’re aware that different tools are needed for different types of communication. Here’s a sample list of tools by core functional that we are currently using, have used, or are familiar with:
Cloud and online document management
Back office support
Efficient and effective back office support is crucial to running your business processes smoothly. So, don’t forget to take care of your virtual team from an administrative standpoint.
- Leverage online training. Online training—we love com because it provides staff with on-demand access so they can learn anywhere, from any device.
- Minimize in-person meetings that negate the point of being virtual. We like to save core strategy sessions and teambuilding for our quarterly and annual face-to-face meetings.
- Utilize online timekeeping and expense reports. Most online tools come with apps or simple, intuitive interfaces and allow you to simplify your workflows, speed up invoicing, and get your team on-board fast and easy.
- Integrate online HR systems for direct deposit, electronic tax forms, and more to centralize support and help you tackle company progression head-on. For example, using tools for softcopy signatures like Adobe, Verisign, and SignNow allow users to move contracts forward faster.
Adjusting your approach, processes, and strategy to unblock communication channels and build trust across all members of the team using innovative tools and technology can take time. But, it’s worth it. Managing virtual teams comes with unique opportunities—more flexibility, higher levels of productivity, and deeper team engagement.