I’ve been working with hundreds of virtual team members in over 9 different countries in the past 8 years. There have been times when I wanted to tear my hair out!
– I had no idea what my team was doing.
– Team members would “flake out”. They’d work effectively for a while and then their quality of work would taper off or they’d quit.
– I get frustrated about not being able to communicate with them effectively.
– I had many issues finding and hiring great people remotely.
But now I know a lot more about handling tough situations and issues that come with the territory when dealing with virtual teams. The strategies I use reflect my years of experience figuring out what works best to keep the teams coherent, productive and motivated.
These are also the strategies that we use at Time Doctor, where we have over 50 full-time team members all working virtually, remotely, to create the best remote management and productivity software for individuals and businesses.
Tip 1: Compensate for the fact that you are not bumping into each other
One of the biggest reasons why virtual teams fail is because they don’t compensate the fact that team members are not bumping into each other. They kind of forget about the other team members, live in their own world and do not communicate or collaborate as much as they need to.
In a virtual environment, you need to create opportunities for team members to just “chat” both formally and informally. Some effective options are online chat rooms (like Skype), project management software (like Basecamp), and video conferencing (free on Google+ Hangout).
Tip 2: Have a chat room open constantly
In our business we have a chat room open for each team in the business. Team members leave messages for the team that they are a part of. It’s essential to keep these chats alive but not distracting. There’s enough conversation to be able to discuss important issues and to feel like we’re connected as one team, but not so much that it becomes distracting.
We also have a fun company wide chat room open for non business related chat. This creates a bit of a water cooler effect where employees can chat about anything they like. It can be a lonely existence working by yourself at home and this company wide chat helps keep a feeling of social connection.
Tip 3: Choose the right communication style
Depending on your needs, choose the type of communication that works best.
- Email – For quick interactions. You can replace most email communication with a project management system.
- Chat programs – Skype or Google chat are great for quick instant messages and for creating a team chat environment.
- Phone calls or video chat – Some types of communication should only be handled over the phone. Any kind of emotional issue such as performance problems should be handled over the phone. Video chat would be even better as it gives you more visual cues of what is going on with the other person.
- Creating a short video – It’s very easy to create a video of yourself on Youtube using your webcam, or using a screen capture tool such as Jing.
Tip 4: Use tools for quick video or visual communication
When you’re not in the same room how can you explain something visually on your computer screen? A Youtube video or a screen capture tool like Jing is a great way to do this. Capture desktop screenshots and put arrows, labels and notes using Jing or create quick screen capture videos and share it with other team members via Youtube.
Tip 5: Use screen sharing tools
There are tools that enable you to share your screen so that another person can see exactly what you are doing. Some of these tools even allow people to control another computer remotely. Many of these tools are free-to-use for small teams, including teamviewer.com and join.me. Skype also has screen sharing capability but without any option to control another computer remotely
Tip 6: Collaboration on documents and spreadsheets
If you have a document that is being edited by many people, Google Drive is the best option. If you have a document that just needs to be shared, and will not be edited simultaneously, then you can place your documents (such as an excel file) in a shared Google Drive or in Dropbox. Many project management tools also have file sharing and collaboration features, so that’s another alternative for collaborating on documents.
Tip 7: Set up a project management system, and actually use it
For smaller teams you might be tempted to wing it and handle everything via email. This is dangerous. Project management systems are helpful because they help to organize documents and conversations into projects, making it easier to find them later. They also help with organizing and storing shared files. If you run your business purely with emails it can quickly become an unmanageable, disorganized mess.
Tip 8: Implement systems
Without systems, your business can fall apart. A business run in an office can compensate to some degree for not having systems and processes simply by the fact that people can talk in person and look over each other’s shoulders. In a virtual team, each person can be in their own world. They may develop their own processes and procedures that don’t mesh with the way other team members are working. It’s best to have a documented, standardized way of working that you’re constantly refining.
For example in our business, developers follow a very specific process for suggestions, building, testing and documentation.
Tip 9: Allow a degree of flexible work hours but also keep some consistency
People working from home will rightly want flexibility with their work hours. And it’s important to allow a degree of flexibility. On the other hand, if things are totally erratic then it will be difficult to get a shared collaboration window when all of your team are online at the same time and able to chat.
Tip 10: Track work output
Whether your team is virtual or not, you need to try to measure their productivity. What are the key indicators of success for each job? Get transparency around this so that you will know quickly (in a couple of weeks and not in 6 months) whether each team member is being productive or not.
Tip 11: Track hours worked, attendance and other basic measures of productivity
If you are paying based on hours worked, then it makes a lot of sense to track how many hours each person works.
In an office environment you know can see who is coming in each day even if you are not tracking attendance. In a completely virtual environment it can be difficult to understand exactly what is going on, how long each person worked, and what they are working on. There is a minority of people who are self motivated enough that they do not need any tracking of attendance or hours. However there is also a large majority who need some level of discipline when working at home.
We built the Timedoctor software to handle these exact issues, and also to track websites visited, applications used, time spent working and time on breaks. Time Doctor can show you for example whether a team member is working or chatting with friends on Facebook.
Tip 12: Organize a system of overlapping times for communicating in different time zones.
If members of your team work in different time zones, make sure that you have an overlapping period where everyone is working and organize your virtual meetings during these times.
Tip 13: Do a quarterly review to see how your virtual team members are coping
One of the issues with working from home is that people can feel lonely and isolated. Not everyone copes well with this style of working. Most people do not have this issue and love the freedom that comes with working from home, but it’s important to check in from time to time and make sure everything is working for them.
Tip 14: Test new employees with short-term work before hiring them full time
You don’t need to hire someone full time right off the bat. You can get a taste of working with someone by hiring them for a small project, and then when it’s completed if you’re happy move on to full time work. It’s important that you do move on to full time work because if you have someone on part time or on a temporary project, their attention will be divided. It’s quite possible they will no longer be available just when you need them most. My experience is that staff who are working part time eventually drop off and stop working altogether. Full time people are relying on your company for their livelihood and are more likely to stick with you long term.
Tip 15: Pay virtual team members well
There are a lot of people who want to work virtually. Many professionals are willing to take a pay cut for the opportunity to work from home. While it’s true that you can find lower-cost team members virtually, if you pay them well, you’ll ensure that your team works hard and sticks with you for the long term.
Tip 16: Look for people who are the right fit for virtual work
Take a look at their environment at home. Do they have a quiet place to work? Are they constantly distracted by children in the house? On the other hand are they living at home by themselves and unable to get out and spend time with friends? Both distractions and isolation can be issues and it’s important to make sure that your team is happy & productive working from home.
Tip 17: Create a standard on-boarding process for educating new employees about your company
If you’re hiring employees remotely then they are not going to get the same kind of “learn by watching over the shoulder” method that can happen in an office. So when you hire someone, make sure that they have a training program (videos can work well) that educates them about your company and the way that you do things. Do as much as you can to get them adjusted to your company and to learn how to perform in their role.
Tip 18: Inspire via video
Remote workers can miss the feeling of a company culture. It’s difficult to create and maintain culture through written words alone. It’s much more powerful to create videos and use video conferencing services such as Google+ hangouts. You can record hangouts for future employees as well. Use videos as a way to inspire your team, and to reinforce core concepts in your company culture (such as your company vision and mission).
Tip 19: Meet in person
It’s hard to develop true friendships remotely. Meeting in person about 4 times per year or as often as possible is the best way to create stronger bonds within your company.
Tip 20: Nurture virtual friendships
Don’t forget that your team are human beings wired to connect with others. People can get connected from outside of work but it’s great to fill some of this need at work as well, much more in a virtual team. In my experience, this is especially important in jobs that do not involve as much human contact, such as in software development.
Tip 21: Create a true “team” feeling
When working virtually it may take extra effort to keep people feeling committed to their team. They need to know that not only they’re contributing true value to the team’s common goal; they are also valuable to the team’s success in achieving its goal. Some ways to achieve this are:
- Having and maintaining non-work related communication
- Sharing the future vision of the company
- Keeping your team informed about how the company is doing. People like to know what’s happening in other parts of the company and how they themselves fit in and are contributing to the bigger picture
- Get everyone in your team involved in important events and projects
- During birthdays and special occasions, send gifts with meaning.
Anything you can do to create a feeling that they are not just working separately but are truly part of your company and part of a team is worthwhile.