Seven Habits of Successful Virtual Teams

Companies of all sizes are experimenting with different ways to make virtual teams most effective:

From large companies like IBM organizing fun activities like picnics and sports, to smaller companies like Perkett PR meeting up at Chamber of Commerce meetings to network, there seem to be plenty of excuses to get together during on and off hours to meet in person. Offline strategies include ‘water cooler’ video conference chats and simply being friendly over IM to humanize daily interactions.

Although every virtual team faces unique challenges, there are some practices that would help almost every team to collaborate more effectively. Here are a few habits I’ve seen practiced by successful virtual teams.

Management demonstrates a thoroughgoing commitment to virtual work. It’s not enough for managers to merely allow team members to work remotely. They should support it both philosophically and financially, ideally even working remotely themselves. Managers who try to make virtual work look as much as possible like office work–establishing standard hours, expecting employees to make do with the bare minimum of tools for remote collaboration, and treating remote team members as second-class citizens–won’t get long-term productivity from their teams. Managers who themselves enjoy the benefits of remote work will be more likely to do whatever they need to to make it succeed.

Team members communicate regularly by phone. No matter what mix of communications technologies are used–email, IM, videoconferencing, phone–I’ve found that it’s the telephone that binds people together best in the absence of face-to-face meetings. On one virtual team, we had weekly Monday morning conference calls to check status and work through issues that had arisen over the past week. I looked forward to those phone calls as a way to get to know my teammates by voice and to hash out problems in real time with a diversity of perspectives. Problems never went more than a week without being at least discussed, if not resolved.

Team members check in with each other frequently throughout the work day. In an office, you can always “prairie dog”–pop up out of your cube and ask the guy in the next cube over something–to make sure little issues don’t turn into big problems. With instant messaging and chat rooms, even with email, it’s possible to let your coworkers know what you’re up to or get a quick answer to something you’re wondering.

The team shares a view of their work. You can accomplish this with a variety of tools, and what works best for each team depends on the kind of work that team is doing. The industry analyst group I work with shares calendars. We know what everyone’s working on at a given point in time just by seeing who they’re talking to and what conferences they’re attending. That works well for a team where the work is primarily outward-facing and event-oriented. On Web Worker Daily, we use Basecamp to keep track of topic ideas, topics we’re actively working on, and to write collaborative posts.

The team leverages the diversity of team members. I don’t just mean a demographic mix by gender, age, and race, although that helps. Teams benefit from the contributions from people of different temperaments, from different geographic areas (think of a software development that achieves 24-hour productivity by passing off code around the world), and from people with different professional skills and experience.

Team members get to know each other on a human level, not just as working robots. One thing you miss with a virtual team is getting to know about each other’s lives. Telephone calls offer a good opportunity to learn a bit more about each others’ personal lives. A group chat room can provide a virtual water cooler for teammates to swap stories about what they did during their vacation or over the weekend. Quick instant messaging lets you learn little bits about another person’s life and know them more as a whole person.

Trust and respect are assumed, not earned. Jon Udell recently said “we’re entering an era in which our personal, social, and professional lives are increasingly network-mediated. Trust-at-a-distance is a new possibility.” Does trust-at-a-distance need to be earned, or should it be assumed instead? I’d argue that you are better off using a “trust, but verify” approach rather than a “you must earn our trust first” with new team members. New teammates have already been vetted through some sort of hiring process (though not necessarily the standard resume-and-interview approach of yore). If you want remote team members to feel both accountable and authorized to work independently towards team goals, you need to trust them. Saying, “I trust you” to a new colleague is a powerful way to make them feel both competent and committed. Taking a “prove you are worthy” stance will make them more likely to doubt themselves and consequently less likely to take risks for the team.

One habit I didn’t include was “team members meet in person occasionally.” I haven’t found that important in my virtual work, where I’ve completed entire projects without ever meeting team members in person, but some might disagree. What do you think? Are regular face-to-face meetings necessary? What habits do you think separate effective virtual teams from ineffective ones?

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