In an effort to better understand the dynamics of distributed teams, I decided to interview my own virtual team members at the social media marketing agency I co-own, Conversify. I wanted to move beyond my own personal preferences and opinions, both as a virtual worker for the last eight years and as a co-founder of a virtual company.
I rebranded my virtual consultancy with my long-time friend Monique Elwell to create Conversify. We shared the goal of creating a business that was entirely virtual and that would allow everyone who joined us the flexibility, mobility and better work/life balance we wanted. She and I were based thousands of miles apart when we joined forces, in Denver and Alaska respectively. More recently, we brought on a third business partner, Steven Jackson from Boston, and have built a team that spans the U.S., with a U.K. presence as well.
Here’s what I learned from the members of our virtual team. Note that most of our agency’s team members came from more traditional work environments.
- Develop clear communications processes. Social media strategist Nik Hewitt emphasizes that one thing that helps our team work well together is that we spent a lot of time developing clear and detailed work processes so we could be consistent and efficient. “We share ideas and discuss them, and a nominated person writes down the salient points based on the knowledge of the team,” Hewitt explains. “Then this information is collated and edited by one team member then passed to another team member for comprehensive expansion.” At each stage of our communications process, we notify each person when it is their turn to participate and give clear deadlines along with scheduled reminders so everyone knows what is expected from whom and when. Attention to a detailed process leads to more consistency and accountability.
- Shared calendaring is key. According to Haley Kilgour, senior account manager, virtual team members have to be more efficient with their time because of the need to schedule specific meetings with one another to discuss issues or make decisions. Even a quick 15 minute chat requires coordinating schedules across time zones to ensure you can “meet” with someone else. We use Google Apps and heavily rely on Google Calendar; we can see the availability of all team members at all times. Plus we can specify our individual work hours that are based on a core set of hours when we are all available at the same time. Those critical mutual time slots are the sweet spot for getting the whole team together for real-time collaboration.
- Make use of time zones. “When we have something that is due on Monday, I feel like I have two Mondays in which to do it,” says Karen Woodward, social media manager, referring to the fact that Hewitt, who is based in the U.K., can begin working on something on a Monday during his work hours and then Woodward and social media specialist Shelli Martineau can pick up where he left off during their workday in Pacific Time. This elongates the team’s productivity and can be a bonus during critical communications periods, providing our clients with 24/7 social media monitoring and management.
- Instant messaging can trump email. Email can be a big challenge for virtual teams especially when team members begin to over-rely on it and everyone can gets buried in emails. Email can also be ineffective if you fail to specify in each email sent to multiple team members exactly who needs to take action, says Elwell, Conversify’s CEO. “If you send an email to five people and say ‘check this out,’ everyone will assume at least one of the others will, and no one will check it out.” Sometimes, instant messaging can be far more targeted and effective. Woodward says that IM has has become her virtual version of “popping my head over the cubicle wall.” But IM can also present a more immediate messaging overload, especially since we usually have both GTalk and Skype running. Sometimes you just have to turn them off to get work done.
- Don’t knock virtual worlds. With several Second Life enthusiasts on our team from the beginning, we decided to bring the rest of our team members “inworld” for both a weekly “watercooler” social as well as quarterly “state of the company” meetings. Kilgour admits that at first she was opposed to meeting in Second Life, but eventually she came to enjoy it. “There’s something to be said for having a visual representation of a meeting that makes me feel more connected,” she says, adding that the format appeals to her visual nature.
Hewitt says that virtual team members need to make an effort to get to know one another. “We take time to just chat, one-to-one and in teams. We just chew the fat sometimes on Skype as though we’re (sitting) next to each other. I pretty much talk to to everyone personally once a week just to catch-up.”
The team also holds meetings for joint creativity such as their “Production Playtime” where they exchange ideas. Martineau, in particular, appreciates “Production Playtime” noting that it’s an opportunity for the team to jointly explore new tools and networks that may be beneficial to clients. “This is how we all got hooked on Get Glue and what reinvigorated our interest in Tumblr,” she adds.
Says Kilgour, getting together in person a couple times of year, if possible, is important, “Human energy can still be missing in virtual settings.” Another caveat for working virtually is to acknowledge that working from home isn’t for everyone and requires self-discipline, the ability to stay focused and being able to avoid distractions.
What does your virtual team use — and do — to work well together?
Top image: Photo by Mike Kilgour, Second Life screenshot by Nik Hewitt