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Your ultimate guide to leading virtual teams

As we step into an increasingly digital workforce — shaped by new global health challenges and the advent of a globalised community — it’s safe to deduce that the world is rapidly evolving towards a new way of working. Allowing all of us to think beyond traditional work hours, office spaces and workplace identities.

This shift has led to a trend towards dispersed teams and businesses across the globe. We are now tasked with thinking about new and pioneering ways of working together and building virtual teams from our computer screens. Perhaps the most significant challenge is the physical connections that no longer conveniently take place. The shared ritual of making coffee together, or the communal joke in the elevator no longer exists. Our challenge now is to figure out how we build connections and social capital into the remote context — even with the smallest of tweaks. 

Leading any team requires thoughtful consideration and planning. But, when it comes to leading a virtual team, it’s especially important to build a plan that factors in communication styles, scheduling needs, and productivity habits across your team in order for them to work symbiotically from any time zone or location. One of the simplest tweaks we can make as leaders is to place a greater focus on the practicalities of planning with our teams — which might have been more organic when we were all in the same space.

We wanted to share some practical tips that you can incorporate into your virtual team planning today.

How to build virtual teams and the importance of planning

1. Adopt a distributed mindset

Shifting to a distributed mindset collectively as a team is the first step to building a happy and healthy team. Whether your company was built as a distributed model from the start, or you’ve recently transitioned into a remote team, it’s important that everyone understands the principles of a high-functioning virtual team, and has these principles at the forefront of their minds when working together. These principles include: 

  • Accessibility: Being accessible does not mean being online all the time. Instead, fostering a culture of accessibility when it comes to information sharing and ensuring that everyone in your team is easily able to access context with minimal confusion. Whether it’s updating your Slack with your timezone or the country you live in, or sharing your calendar view or to-do list with your immediate team, building a culture of information-sharing can help build strong team foundations from the start. 
  • Team readiness: Another principle to adopt is ensuring that your team is open to the proposed processes and tactics being suggested by you as a team leader. One easy way to gain a deeper understanding of how your team works is to brainstorm and discuss how they work as individuals and identify core similarities and differences that you can navigate together. Understanding work motivations and styles — such as if people like to “share responsibility” or take “sole responsibility” for goal achievement — helps everyone build rapport fast, and focus on the work. 
  •  Collective empathy: Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference. Building a psychologically-safe, empathetic environment is the cornerstone of any high-performing team — and one of the hardest challenges as a leader. Setting foundations of ensuring your team are comfortable communicating how they are feeling, and personal blockers they have can help to foster a culture of openness and communication. 
  • Flexibility: As a virtual team, it’s likely that you may work in different countries, locations, or simply have different personal requirements (i.e. picking kids up from school, frequent healthcare appointments, or having a pet to attend to). Ensuring that you’re building flexibility and trust within your team, means that as a team you’re more likely to appreciate individual boundaries and requirements when working together. 

2. Create sustainable systems and processes

Working in remote or virtual teams often means that communication and coordination can become more difficult because teams are not conveniently located next to each other. Just like with any team, systems and processes allow team members to understand the impact they have within a wider business context, as they provide a feedback loop so that you can measure progress for both the company and the people in the team.

Ensuring that you create simple processes and systems — it’s normal that these will pivot and adapt as your team grows — also allows for your team to focus on the high-priority work and therefore ensures collective success.

How to build a process 

Create a mindmap inventory: Before trying to build any kind of system or process, it’s important to clearly identify the landscape your team works within. This includes your team members’ personal preferences, allocated tasks and responsibilities, the scope of work, and current cadence of meetings. Once you have these, you’ll be able to clearly identify what is working and what is not. Mindmaps are excellent for collecting unstructured information so you can then find patterns.

Identify current processes: Even if you’re a new team, chances are your team members have previously used or currently use processes and tools that they’ve seen work and not work as well. To clearly identify how your team works, it’s essential to include them in the process of building your systems and processes together. Set up a brainstorming session to do a mindmap or another activity to ensure that you haven’t missed anything within the inventory stage. 

Plan and document your new process: Keeping the principle of accessibility in front of mind, it’s important to clearly document your new processes and systems and make them accessible to your team via your company’s knowledge hubs or similar. As a team, you can all take responsibility for documentation and change as needed. 

Check-in with your team: Chances are, no matter how meticulously you planned, a process may have been missed and changes always need to be made. After your team has begun to implement new processes, it’s helpful to check in and specifically ask for feedback and areas of improvement. Strong feedback loops are a great habit to build.

Pivot and update as needed: As with any framework, your processes and systems should change as your team grows, or your goals pivot. Setting up a cadence to assess this regularly will allow you to be agile and move quicker. 

3. Use the right technology for your team 

Luckily, working in virtual teams has become a more seamless experience thanks to tooling built for distributed teams. From collaborative apps to video conferencing there are a plethora of platforms out there. However, it’s important to understand that there can also be too many tools for your team to use and understand. 

By understanding your processes and needs first, you can then make decisions around tooling that will help you get there. Start simple, and work your way up as needed and as your team expands. Never let the tools dictate your process.

4. Integrate regular pulse checks into the team 

While water coolers feel like a dated notion for most office environments nowadays, the virtual team doesn’t have the coffee machine, ping-pong table, or lunch spot to congregate around, and so it can be tricky to adequately assess the mood, team dynamics, and overall happiness of your team as you would in a centralised environment. 

Integrating regular and casual team syncs — alongside regular cadence meetings — into your team allows you to stay connected and communicate effectively. 

Pulse check ideas 

  • Daily scrums:  A daily scrum is where the team syncs every morning at the same time. They are designed to be short and sweet. Most teams simply talk about what they’re working on for the day, and if there is anything that’s blocking them from doing certain tasks or meeting deadlines. Some teams even incorporate mood checks (on a scale from 1-10 or emojis) just to get a general idea of how the team is feeling. This allows you as a leader to understand the team dynamics and allow for you to unblock any team members where possible at the time or later in your 1-on-1 meetings. 
  • Wind downs: Not all team meetings need to be serious! In fact, bonding with your team outside of a work context is a great way to build a sense of closeness. After a long week, why not schedule optional online hangouts? They can be themed, based around a game, listening to music, or even dinner-focussed — who doesn’t love pasta?  
  • Project retrospectives: While you may have regular tasks and meetings, a project retrospective is a meeting that takes place after a large-scale project or goal completion. The goal of a retrospective is to clearly identify: what went well, areas for improvement and next steps to make the next project better. Project retrospectives are a great way to ensure every team member is heard and is able to communicate their experience in a safe forum, again building that feedback muscle.

Meeting tip: In order for team members to feel engaged and a sense of ownership, rotate the role of “meeting host” every week between team members. This ensures engagement remains high and that introverted team members are allowed space to speak and share their ideas. 

5. Promote a culture of documentation 

While documentation can feel like a time-consuming and boring process, in distributed teams, understanding their purpose and importance helps ensure that every team member has access to important information at their disposal. When done well this helps everyone make the right decisions and move faster. There are many different types of documentation. The most popular include: useful references, written accounts of meetings, decision-making logs, team tactics, templates, and playbooks. 

Some other benefits of documentation includes that it helps to: 

  • promote and standardise processes and efficient ways of working. 
  • reduce the risk of miscommunication.
  • improve onboarding and reduces training time.
  • facilitate big picture thinking and strategy ownership.
  • promote transparency and collaboration (breaks down silos). 
  • accurately identify stakeholders and required jobs to be done. 

Creating and giving your team access to document frameworks that they can personalise is a helpful way to encourage a culture of information-sharing. Ultimately, a culture of open documentation can lead to inclusivity, as no one is left out of the conversation and a diverse set of perspectives can be heard.

6. Focus on transparent communication styles

As humans most of our communication has nothing to do with the words we say. A famous study conducted by Mehrabian & Wiener found that most communication cues come from our body language and tone of voice. And so, when you take body language and tone of voice out of the equation, it means that transparent and effective communication is an integral part of the productivity and happiness of your team. 

A helpful strategy in ensuring impactful communication can be seen in the Hive mind mentality. This idea asks teams to become aware of their commonality and think and act as a community, sharing their knowledge, thoughts, and resources in order to move forward, together. 

To ensure communication is as clear and effective as possible, it’s important to create a best-practice guide that establishes virtual meetings etiquette. These things can include, limiting background noise, sending agendas prior to meetings, talking clearly, focussing, and not looking at other screens. Equally thinking about how written communication is shared and will be received by others is important, including the use of emojis and if current team members need help in improving their written communication skills especially if previously they mainly had in-person meetings. 

7. Build a culture of autonomy and accountability

When working in a distributed team, it’s likely that you’ll have members that work in different locations and thus time zones. You’ll also have team members that work differently. Some might like to focus on deep work in blocks, while others won’t mind multitasking and switching between different tasks as needed. Some may like mornings, and others may find their flow later in the afternoon. 

One way to ensure that you have a productive team that feels comfortable solving problems is to adopt a T-shaped team mentality

A T-shaped team is where an individual team member has a defined, recognised specialty and primary function — for example, they are a digital designer — but also has the skills, versatility, and ability for collaboration and to step into new requirements or projects as needed. This collaboration-mindset reduces team constraints and the idea of only one person being able to do certain tasks. It also empowers your team to stretch new muscles and gain new experiences and capabilities. 

Making sure you also encourage accountability can be as easy as having an end-of-week update or Show & Tell. For example, each Friday, every person on the team could post an update to your core communication tool (Slack, Teams etc) about what they shipped that week and what they are working on for the next week.

8. Create an onboarding process

A great onboarding program is essential when welcoming a new member to your virtual team. It helps new hires to feel like they are part of the team, and have the initial context they need to navigate their new workplace. Ensuring that your onboarding process is digitally friendly and, of course, documented is a key step in starting a culture for strong virtual teams. Research also supports this with research by Glassdoor finding that organisations with a strong onboarding process improve new hire retention by 82 percent and productivity by over 70 percent. 

As many workplaces move into a remote format we are excited to see the evolution of communication practices and tools that will help people improve their sense of togetherness in virtual spaces. As well as how office spaces will evolve to become perhaps a less visited but more focused place to connect and do work together.

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