Remember the time when you spent a day working on something, only to discover another member of the remote team had already done it days ago, but forgotten to mark it as done?
Remember the time when you sat waiting for an urgent response to an email for half a day, before finding out that the Australian colleagues have a public holiday and were probably all off throwing shrimps on the BBQ?
And remember that time when you were pulling out your hair trying to run a major project, overseeing 8 different employees who’ve never met, barely communicate and live in different time-zones?
Virtual work can have its challenges; can’t it? Many companies swear by it, saying it lowers overheads and boosts employee happiness and productivity. Others, like Yahoo, have turned their backs on the virtual team working world, saying that a traditional workspace is more collaborative and generates better ideas.
There’s a lot to be said for remote work- for the employer just as much as the employee. A study carried out by Stanford Professor, Nick Bloom, showed that virtual workers were more productive, worked longer hours, used less sick time and quit less than office-bound workers. They even take fewer breaks! This study estimated that a company saves about $2000 a year for each employee who worked from home.
Yet we can’t dispute that it can be tough. So what separates the successful virtual teams from the not-so-successful ones?
The Three C’s.
Communication; Co-ordination; Culture. In a virtual team, these three areas are the pillars that create a strong foundation for your team to unite and perform at their best- AS A TEAM, not just as individuals. Without these pillars, your team can degenerate into a fragmented, disorganised, (and even sometimes disgruntled) mess. No project can succeed under these conditions.
How to build the 3 C’s in a virtual team
- Use Skype for as many communications as possible. Humans trust more when we can see body language and facial expressions. Skype isn’t perfect, but it’s an excellent compromise.
- Reduce email. Many people dislike the phone, and as we increasingly text, IM and email, more people are becoming ‘phone-phobic’ at work. Complex issues need to be discussed over the phone rather than email; email is fine for simple requests- but for brainstorming or problem-solving-get on the phone.
- Enforce a ‘rapid-reply’ ethos in your virtual team. Countless valuable hours are lost waiting for replies in a virtual team- make sure everyone understands that it’s not an option to ‘deal with it later’ when receiving emails from remote colleagues.
- Everybody must rigorously update their shared calendar, and check other’s availability before sending requests to other members. Why not put your working hours in your email signature as a reminder, or set auto-office replies?
- As a manager, you must communicate the vision. The goals of your team are what will unite them if you communicate it properly, and show them how they all fit together.
- Utilise good project management software or other collaborative tools to co-ordinate your team. We’ve written about how to choose and implement collaborative tools here.
- Reduce (or even ban) internal reliance on email, particularly when talking about project progress and targets. Instead, get everyone updating their progress on the project management software, so that no-one gets left out of the loop and starts duplicating work.
- As a manager, you need to organise your own time well, communicating with people in different time zones when it’s best for them- don’t send urgent requests at 5pm or it’s likely to create resentment.
- Keep giving regular updates. Insist that everyone else also gets in the habit of frequent updates to you and the team, and tell them when you expect these progress reports to arrive.
- Try to create some atmosphere in meetings, talk about something non-work related to kick off proceedings.
- Encourage chit chat between the team to make up for the lost bonding opportunities found in a physical office.
- Send flowers/cards/cupcakes on birthdays.
- Educate yourself on how the different cultures in your team view manners, work ethic and time-management in different ways.
- Create a closed social media page with a genuine, engaging voice- encourage people to post photos of places they’ve been and things they like doing.
- If your budget will stretch to it, bring the employees together at least once, preferably twice a year.
We’ve written further about building a culture of trust through communication in virtual teams- read the blog here.
Until next time,