What is 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!
There are further delineations within a virtual team that have become more common in recent years. For example, virtual teams include both fully remote teams and hybrid teams. While there are different ways to manage hybrid and remote workers, there are some consistent strategies that effective managers of virtual teams should always employ. Before we dive into our best tips for building successful virtual teams, let’s take a step back and look at what some of the advantages of virtual teams are.
Our 2022 State of Remote Work tells us that 62% of workers feel more productive when working remotely, and that hybrid workers save an average of $19.11 per day when not commuting to the office. The advantages of virtual teams don’t stop there. Whether your team is hybrid or completely remote, there are a variety of benefits including:
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.
An integral part of facilitating communication amongst virtual teams is to invest in technology that helps employees effectively collaborate, even when they can’t be in the same room together. We’ll dive deeper into those tools later on, but it’s worth noting here that the best virtual teams invest in the best collaborative technology.
Okay, your team has a strong foundation of communication. 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 when 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released a report warning about a loneliness epidemic in the United States and cited the rise of remote work as a driving factor behind the issue. Just like in-person teams, virtual teams are comprised of people - people who need to take care of their mental health.
One of the best ways for workers to avoid burnout and find happiness in their work is for them to develop strong and meaningful workplace relationships. The ability to create those relationships doesn’t disappear for hybrid teams, but it does require meaningful investments from virtual team leaders.
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, but as hybrid and remote work have become mainstream so has the technology that these teams rely on to collaborate.
Depending on the features you need, one product may edge out another. Some products will work better than others depending on factors like team size, room size, and specific needs but these general categories tend to hold true for all virtual teams.
So that's it! Whether you work on a remote team or a hybrid one, leaders need to help their organizations adapt to a future that is based around managing virtual teams. 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.