Virtual teams are no longer a rarity in the business world. I should know– I’ve been on numerous entirely virtual and blended virtual teams over my work life. With a projected 1.3 billion people working virtually over the next few years, according to the Harvard Business Journal, if you haven’t already been a part of a virtual team, chances are you will be soon. That’s why I talked to a number of professionals who work in and lead virtual teams, and asked them to share their best tips on making the most of this new way to work.
The benefits of virtual teams
“The Content Marketing Institute has been a virtual company since opening its doors in 2007,” said Cathy McPhillips, Marketing Director at the Content Marketing Institute. “Many of our team members were in fact drawn to the virtual team because of the workflow. I think it is great because it gives us the flexibility throughout the week to set our own hours and still get our work done. It takes great trust on CMI’s part to have our team set up this way, but honestly, most of us adhere to a traditional schedule each day. “
McPhillips noted that although she does sometimes miss the “watercooler” aspect of working in the same physical space, being a virtual team enhances their overall productivity as they don’t have the ever-present distractions of an office environment – which is particularly useful considering the amount of writing the team does each week. “On the flip side, when we do have team meetings in person, it does make us realize the value of face time, brainstorming and spending time together,” she said.
Virtual teams are not without their challenges
“When a small number of people are remote, other members of the company may not be as well versed in using the best practices needed for seamless remote communication,” said Jill Clay, a remote project manager at Orbit Media Studios. “For example, some team members who don’t have to use it regularly struggle with dialing into conference calls or screenshares (seriously!).”
Jill also noted that, in situations where only a handful of employees work remotely, some of the small improvements that could make life for the remote employee more efficient can get put on the back burner because it only affects a small amount of employees. “For example, it took over 2 years before I had VPN access and not all of the conference phones are that easy to hear,” she said.
5 tips and tricks for building a successful virtual team
Tip #1 Inclusion is Key
“Inclusion is the key,” said Andy Crestodina, Founder and Strategic Director, Orbit Media Studios. “When there’s an all-company meeting, get them on a video call. Put their face on the big screen at the beginning and end of the meeting so everyone can wave hello and feel like they’re present.”
Tip #2 Make Time to Celebrate Team Achievements
“When team members are in an office together, celebrations and team member appreciation can happen on a regular basis,” said McPhillips. “Our team is very generous in thanking each other both offline as well as online, such as twitter or our LinkedIn group. This has really helped build a sense of team unity.”
Tip #3 Bridge In-Person Collaboration Sessions with Online Collaboration Tools
“Find a way to meet and enjoy at least SOME social time in person together at least once,” said Jenise Fryatt, Content Marketing Strategist, Smarter Shift Marketing. “And use an online collaboration platform and Google Docs. These tools allow you to work together on documents, share the same resources and keep track of what the rest of the team is doing.”
Tip #4 Take Time to Get to Know Each Other…Outside of just the Work Context
“Make time for virtual group activities, such as linking everyone together via a shared hashtag is a good start,” said Brandie McCallum, a freelance community manager. “You can also pair up teams that compliment each other, making small cohesive subgroups, and host weekly meetings with those groups for talking about non business topics. Finding and sharing their passions, such as through creating a group project that doesn’t involve work is another way to build that team spirit. Sometimes, just being silly is all it takes.”
Tip #5 Encourage Creative, Informal Virtual Team-Building Activities
“Our biweekly team meetings are a video conference link up of FIVE locations; it is always a great time to see everyone and build those relationships,” said Rachel Formaro, a Fortune 500 team manager. “We find ways to be fun, together, such as sharing funny email threads. We’ll “flash mob” using IM to wish someone a happy birthday or give a grass roots appreciation award, and we took screen shots of us all on the video conference screen, a la The Brady Bunch, which we keep posted on our walls. Also, I believe the whole team is connected on FB, which helps us stay in touch as humans.”
What have you done to build relationships amongst your virtual team members? I’d love to hear your tips in the comments.