Seven Habits of Successful Virtual Teams

19 Comments

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?

19 Comments

Miss Water Cooler Dispensers

You are absolutely right. Tim Ferris actually has great ideas on how to work remotely and maximize your time in his new book “4 hour work week”. Interesting read if you are so inclined. Great post.

Gil Heiman

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Ben

I agree with about everything that you say. I always would rather a face to face one in a while and once during a project if at all possible, but with the modern work schedule it is not always possible. Thanks for the great post.

Anne Zelenka

Thanks, Amyloo! I think the hybrid situation–where some people work at a main office and some people “telecommute” is difficult to make work. That would be a great topic for the future. Seems to me the very word “telecommute” includes the idea that you’re trying to get to the office but in a sort of lesser way.

That’s funny that there’s a requirement for the telecommuter not to show she enjoys doing it! There’s probably a bunch of posturing required from the telecommuter, none of which actually contributes to high productivity.

@Rick: you bring up a ton of good questions and make great points… we will need to keep talking about this.

Amyloo

Nice one, Anne. V. well thought out and written as usual for you. On the first point, a thoroughgoing commitment, I’d love to see more on this in a future article, including more about what that means in the philosophical arena.

And, probably a separate piece, what it means for management to support occasional telecommuting. I’ve recently been getting a funny feeling that there is an unspoken agenda going on in these arrangements. For example, sometimes there’s a requirement for the telecommuter not to show that she enjoys doing it!

Deepak

Having worked, partially successfully, with a remote team, I think the biggest challenge in some cases is cultural. When you move from a culture steeped in “in person” meetings, committees and the like, moving to a virtual work environment can be very hard for some people.

rick gregory

Anne –

no, I haven’t seen that. I’ll grab a copy. Here are a couple of other things I wonder about with virtual teams:

– do they only work with virtual companies? In a traditional company why go virtual and how does the interface to the non-virtual teams work?

– transitioning to virtual. I have a client that is delivering a SaaS web app, is 30ish people, but still sends docs around via email and doesn’t use IM…. I’m not trying to move them virtual since it’s a short term contract for me, but the cultural issues surrounding this intrigue me. Why some companies move this way, what starts them down that path, and the inverse… why some companies don’t do this and why not.

– recruiting. If the team is really virtual, you should evaluate talent regionally, nationally, even globally. Yet most companies still post jobs with a physical location, showing a mindset that is decidedly tipped toward the physical. Can you really do this? Or is it just too hard? Is there really an advantage to opening up the talent pool for any but the scarcest skillset?

– non-core geographies. One thing about WWD and most of the buzz around this is that it seems to come from Silicon Valley. But there’s a concentration of tech people there. What does it really mean to be virtual if your compatriots or clients are all within 40 miles? (I realize you’re not there). Isn’t the advantage of moving virtual really bigger for people in non-core places? I’m not speaking of small towns, but places like Denver, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Santa Fe, Cinncinati, etc, etc. Or, for that matter, why not small towns? As long as I have high speed connectivity, reliable VoIP or mobile phone service… why not? But virtual teams in SV seem like cheating – its too easy and SV is too far to one side of the curve.

Krish

The greatest challenge for the web workers is the trust one should develop. Like Jon Udell says, “trust over internet” is a norm now. We had problem till we developed the trust. Once we did it, it was smooth.

Anne Zelenka

My loathing of offsites made me blind to alternative face-to-face meeting formats. Perhaps top-down management in any setting doesn’t mesh well with virtual teams.

Those are excellent questions and ones I hope we’ll be able to tackle as we talk more about the human context of web work. Have you seen the book The Starfish and The Spider? It addresses the question of decentralized, flat organizations. It didn’t get enough into how to make that really work for my tastes, but it did at least lay out the trends and various organizations that are operating that way.

rick gregory

Anne,

I like tech toys too… don’t get me wrong.

On face to face… I’ve often had business relationships with someone that started virtually, we met in person for some reason, and then we continued virtually for years, never meeting again. The single in person meeting, often just for a few hours, added richness to our interactions.

On offsites.. I HATE offsites. They never end up being valuable and usually are an excuse for management to blah blah a lot about ‘strategic initiatives’ and such. I’m thinking more of a peer driven get together that the team uses just as get to know each other situation. Which brings up another point – what does a move toward virtual teams imply for how we organize companies? Can we really maintain an hierarchical organization in a virtual world? Do we have managers or are they more coordinators? If the latter, how do we set and move toward common goals? How does this work in a company of 50? 500? 5000? 50,000?

Anne Zelenka

Matsu – nice idea for geek 2.0–I think you are right that developing well-rounded skills is critical for success in the new economy. I’ll have to listen to that BusinessWeek podcast. Sounds inspiring!

Rick – I absolutely agree with you that the main challenges to working virtually are social not technological. Although I love to hear and think about the latest tools I know that ultimately it’s about humans connecting to other humans, no matter what we use to do it.

It could be that face-to-face meetings are more important and useful than what I portrayed here. I’ve seen some such meetings backfire especially when those planning the meetings have differing priorities than those attending (e.g. multi-day offsites that take people away from their families for too long). But I can also see the benefit to in-person meetings.

rick gregory

Anne,

Excellent article – I hope to see more like this on WWD. Interesting as the ‘what backup solution do you use’ stuff is, I think the main challenges to working virtually are the social. The casual conversations, knowing what other people look like, spontaneous lunches… all of those happen without us thinking about them. People will seek substitutes for these activities when working virtually.

to your question… As I read this, I was thinking of how my virtual relationships have changed when I’ve met people. Perfectly cordial relationships have taken on a new intimacy when I’m ow talking on the phone with someone whom I’ve had lunch with, who I can visualize and who I’ve seen in real social situations. Is it required? Nope. But for ongoing relationships I think it adds a richness to the interactions that is valuable. I’d go so far as to get team members together once a year or even twice to simply spend a couple of days hanging out, talking about work and socializing if the team was one that was going to work together long term.

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