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Working in a Virtual Team

There is a lot written about working in virtual teams. It saves money, both for the organization and for the individuals. It allows companies to access talent nearly anywhere and even pay less because of the benefits of working at home. It allows individuals to balance out their lives better.

Not everyone is a good fit for virtual work; you have to be someone who can sit down in a chair, organize your work and stay focused until you have accomplished something. You also have to be able to close the door on your office when you are done and relax. Boundaries are crucial and take time to develop.

I recently had an experience of working in a virtual team. Some members of the team had worked together in a “real” office before the organization went virtual and others were hired into that environment. I learned two mission-critical things about how to work in a high-functioning virtual team:

#1 Virtual people are still people. You have to figure out how to develop community and trust, even friendship, in cyberspace. If you don’t, the normal mishaps of work will magnify and people will be frustrated and leave.

#2 Processes have to be better than in a real office. You can’t grab someone as they are getting coffee and ask a question. Project management, processes and office systems have to be top notch, developed, taught and enforced.

Let’s talk about the people part in this blog post since I am only fair at process. I have learned a lot about developing relationships and community virtually. Think of all the ways actual workplace teams connect. There are photos of what is important to people on their desks. We may casually talk about music or art or sports. Politics become clear fairly quickly, as do demographics. Most people share at least a little talking over lunch or coffee when they work in the same office. You get some sense of your teammates and build connections.

None of those markers are available to virtual teams and it is harder to create a community of trust that helps retention. Here are some best practices I learned:

Video Conferences

The ubiquitous video conference call is more personal than a phone call but not nearly as interpersonal as an in-person meeting. It is pretty easy to screw this up.

  1. Don’t do video one-to-ones longer than an hour. To participate in a video call, we have to sit very still, stare into a screen that does not accurately translate all the nuances of nonverbal communication and pretend to be interested. It is torture. Make it short.

  2. Make “Brady Bunch” group calls no more than 40 minutes. More is more torture, but in tiny boxes.

  3. Don’t assume that because you work at home, your video call can be SUPER casual. Please don’t be lounging in bed or wearing something you would not wear to the office. Or have your office behind you appear to have been hit by a tornado. A video conference call is a work meeting. Treat it like one. Observe the environment behind you. If it looks like an office, and you look you can walk into an office, you are good. I always keep a tube of brighter lipstick nearby -not that I apply it during the call- but screens wash you out and looking good is part of a professional set up. I apply it before the call.

  4. Know how to use the tech, especially the “stop video,” and “mute” buttons. Nothing is less cool than a toilet flushing in the background. Seriously.

  5. If you are traveling, check into a conference room at a local library. I use the tiny Grand Marais, Minnesota library’s small conference room and wifi when I am up at my cabin – it is free, professional and easy-to-use.

Telephone Conference Calls

A telephone conference call in some ways is easier. I often wash windows or do household chores while muted on long telephone conference calls, which makes it much more pleasant. Use mute frequently!

Building Relationships

The getting-to-know-you phase of working with someone might be omitted because they are a voice or a picture in a box and that is kind of weird for humans. When you are new to an organization, regard the first call with each of your teammates as sort of like a coffee meeting. Ask them about themselves, their family, what they do outside of work. Ask them about their work style and what is important to them in a good colleague relationship. Build trust over the phone / video just like you would in person.

Consider that holidays and birthdays may be more important on a virtual team. Note them somehow.

You can have virtual happy hours, virtual coffee meetings and virtual goodbyes. Have someone in charge of making sure the ceremonies and traditions of an office are re-created virtually.

Staff Meetings

Make sure your virtual staff meetings have something that connects people. Some of my favorite ideas include:

  • Keep them short. Have a regular agenda, and rotate who facilitates so each person can gain leadership experience.

  • On each meeting, have a different staff member show three photos – they can be of family, pets, hobbies or whatever, but they replace the photos most people have in their offices.

  • Send out a detailed agenda the day before. Put logistical things like holidays or office changes on paper – when people hear them they might not remember them as well.

  • Focus the meeting on what everyone needs to hear / discuss and schedule meetings with smaller groups if not everyone needs the information.

  • Follow up each meeting with a list of action items and who is responsible.

There will be more opportunities to work in virtual teams – and more opportunities to make them better. Call me if you want some help. Wendy

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