The virtual teams driver’s license

York Scheunemann, Dr. Beat Bühlmann / June 2018

Virtual teams are the new normal. Some 43% of the US workforce already report doing some work remotely, and whether it’s connecting with a freelancer down the street or a marketing headquarters on another continent, companies in every industry are embracing the ability to bring skilled people together, wherever they are in the world.

In just a few years, our idea of the workplace has transformed dramatically. Where colleagues used to meet up in person to solve problems, advances in collaborative technology have generated an explosion in the number of virtual teams working together on shared tasks from different locations.

Today, virtual teams are a key component in working life. And though they can deliver huge benefits, a mismanaged team can encounter real problems. When members of a virtual team each have their own communication channels, their own ideas of what’s urgent and what isn’t, and their own notions of what’s expected, you have an accident waiting to happen. That’s how Evernote’s Dr Beat Bühlmann and I came up with the idea of the virtual team driver’s license. Before you can drive a car you have to learn the rules and take a test – on paper and on the road. The same is true for virtual teams. We laid out how in a new report for virtual team managers, virtual team members, and anyone interested in the future of collaboration.

The rules of the road

Technology can only do so much. Making a virtual team work well requires special management skills, too. That’s why getting a virtual team running smoothly doesn’t just mean making the best of the tools available, it also means recognizing what not to take for granted, then taking steps to compensate. We split our recommendations across three vital aspects of virtual team management:

  • Hiring 
  • Onboarding 
  • Communications

Finally, we looked at how to generate the essence of all virtual teamwork, the thing that keeps things rolling and ties it all together: Trust.

Hiring the right drivers for your virtual team

A great virtual team is like a sports car. It’s fast. It’s finely tuned. And it’s not for everyone. Remote work requires people who have the self-motivation, independence and responsibility to be relied on to deliver without ever-present oversight. We identify the core attributes that any virtual team member must have and recommend pre-interview techniques to screen for verbal articulation and listening skills – crucial abilities for any remote worker.

Strapping in for the journey

A virtual team is still a human team. For all of the benefits of remote working, nothing beats face-to-face introductions to teammates, tasks, tools and responsibilities. But remote onboarding, done right, can be a good alternative. Here’s how:

  • Schedule regular calls in the first 90 days to establish trust and a team dynamic
  • Take notes on all of the onboarding materials to keep track of progress
  • Share personal information such as hobbies to build a strong foundation for the relationship
  • Designate a co-worker as the new hire’s first point of contact for everyday queries
  • Ensure clarity of roles and responsibilities, with measurable goals and milestones defined by “The Three Ws”: Who does What by When.

Bear in mind that working across borders means respecting other customs, commitments, constraints and legal systems. Learn about those differences and accommodate them to help members feel included and understood within the wider organization.

Staying on track with strong communication

When teammates are not in the same room, they communicate without the benefit of body language or tone of voice. That significantly increases the risk of misunderstandings, which is why every virtual team needs to agree to a set of shared communication techniques, behaviors, and technical systems and stick to them. In our full report, we present an example of this “Communications Driver’s License” for you to modify and make your own.

Instead of meeting in person, online meetings are the backbone of virtual team communication. Here’s how you can make every one of those meetings more productive:

  • Establish a regular cadence of meetings with fixed dates
  • Ensure meeting invites includes an agenda
  • Include links to any preparatory reading material you’re recommending
  • Make meetings 30-minutes long, and schedule 60-minute meetings only if truly needed
  • Orchestrate talking time so everyone feels able to contribute
  • Agree on the communication channels for each type of meeting
  • Make the communication technology easy to use and reliable
  • Agree on a virtual place to share documents
  • Make native speakers aware of their linguistic advantage if non-native speakers are on the team
  • Create transparency with a dashboard so everyone can see the progress of their own work

Finally, follow “The Three Ws” rule for any kind of verbal and written communication, especially action items and decisions made during meetings: Who Does What By When.

Building virtual trust

Trust is the fuel powering any high-performance team, and in virtual teams, trust may be even more critical than it is in any other environment. For remote working, the two kinds of trust that matter most are interpersonal trust and task-based trust. Interpersonal trust means sharing meals, socializing, and discussing hobbies, and it’s much harder to do without face-to-face contact. Task-based trust takes a lot longer to develop. It means delivering high-quality work, being reliable and cooperating with colleagues.

Because virtual team interactions are less frequent and more formalized than in an office, building both kinds of trust can be slow, but there are still ways team leaders can help them thrive:

  • Hold an early kick-off meeting as a “getting-to-know-each-other” session making space for relaxed chats about interests, aspirations and so on.\
  • Lead by example and keep agreements. A virtual team leader influences the mood and energy of the team and simply doing what was agreed upon makes a difference.
  • Share successes and failures honestly, not only to help individual growth, but also for team spirit.
  • Make a specific effort to keep virtual team players talking, so siloes don’t build up, everyone feels involved and the team can develop a sense of collective responsibility.

Are you ready to get your license?

For an example of the driver’s license, an in-depth breakdown of key skills, and further reading download the full report here.

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