5 Tips for Effective Virtual Teams

Last Friday I hosted a session on the pros, cons and best practices for building and managing virtual teams at the MassTLC Innovation unConference.  In that session, I presented the research I had done over the past two weeks and people shared the techniques they were using for their virtual teams. In this post, I summarize the lessons learned and add a few new links to resources for managing virtual teams.

If you haven’t read my original article introducing the session, you can read it at Virtual Teams: Pros, Cons & Best Practices.

1. Learn to build & maintain trust virtually

In face-to-face interactions, trust builds over time. In virtual teams, members assume others are trustworthy, then look for confirming or disconfirming evidence. This “swift trust” model relies on early interactions to establish trust. Keys to establishing swift trust early on include:

  • Start enthusiastically
    Introduce yourself with enthusiasm and warmth. Set a positive, personal tone. Say things like “I’m glad you’re part of the team” and “I really think this is going to work out.”
  • Meet face-to-face
    Face-to-face meetings can jumpstart trust. Rather than use precious face-to-face time early on for design meetings or brainstorming, use those meetings to build relationships, establish trust and create team cohesion.
  • Communicate frequently
    Make an effort to reach out and communicate, whether by phone, chat or e-mail, more frequently than you would normally to establish a relationship.
  • Respond quickly
    Reply quickly to questions and requests, especially early on. Make sure other team members do the same when a new person enters the team. As the relationship develops, aim for consistency over speed.
  • Establish expectations
    Make everyone on a team aware of their role and the role of any new members. Model the behavior you want in your team, and set up your interaction patterns early.
  • Broadcast your state
    Not being there when someone expects you to be breaks trust quickly. Use group chat or other broadcast mechanisms to tell people when you’re out to lunch, at a meeting or taking the day off.  Let people know if you’re spending the afternoon working on a big project & turning off your e-mail, or when you have a lot on your plate.
  • Make work visible
    Showing progress early on builds trust. People need to see that a new member will contribute to the team. Focus early tasks on small projects whose outputs can be made visible to the entire team. Save the long infrastructure projects until after trust develops.
  • Interact socially
    Social connections build team cohesion and trust. Early on virtual teams tend to be task focused. Social connections develop over time. Ideas for building social connections include setting aside time each week to interact on Google Hangouts, using a social network to create an ambient awareness of others or using an appreciation wall like Shopify’s UNICORN.

Over time, these become less important. But establishing trust early on greatly affects the success of your team. Work on engineering trust. Don’t rely on it to just happen.

2. Leverage online communication tools

Good communication determines a team’s success. To work virtually, dozens of online tools exist. Try these techniques to use them effectively:

  • Keep a group chat open in the background
    A background group chat allows people to stay connected as a group, alert others to what they’re working on (or have just completed) and ask questions to the group. Someone mentioned using a Skype group chat for this, while others use IRC. IRC had the advantage that people can use scripts to monitor the channel for specific events.
  • Use instant messenger for quick questions
    Use Skype or another instant messenger to ask another team member a quick question. Skype has the advantage of allowing voice, video and screen-sharing, so was the dominant program used for this. Skype calls have the advantage of connecting quickly without dialing a number. Consider changing the social dynamics and train your team that it’s just like popping your head over someone’s cubicle wall, rather than making a phone call.
  • Make interactions equal for all members
    When hosting a meeting with some team members on-site and others remote, have everyone remain at their desks and do the meeting online as if everyone was remote. This prevents remote team members feeling like they’re left out of whiteboard slides, side conversations, jokes involving a visual component and subconscious body language signals. Feelings of exclusion can quickly escalate into loss of trust and team cohesion.
  • Experiment with video
    Attendees had mixed results with video.  Some felt it was distracting, while others thought it was useful. If you’ve interacted with the team member face-to-face you may not need it, since you can imagine their body language when speaking to them by phone. For new team members, it might be useful to develop that baseline connection.
  • Try a telepresence robot
    The VGo looks like a monitor on a Segway. As comical as it sounds, it may work. No one at the session had experience using one. But at a rumored $6,000, it’s getting cost effective enough to start experimenting. Alternatively, try using a stuffed animal to represent remote members during meetings. It might help change the dynamics of how people interact with them. There is precedence: HubSpot uses a stuffed bear to represent their customer during meetings.

Other technologies mentioned included Microsoft Lync and the suite of tools provided by 37 Signals.

Another idea was to create a virtual hallway. Set up two monitors with webcams linking the two (or just use two iPad 2′s and connect them using FaceTime). People passing in one hallway can chat and talk to those in another hallway thousands of miles away. One attendee tried this with individual team members working from home, but it didn’t work to foster hallway conversations as he hoped. If you get this working successfully, let me know.

3. Set up interaction standards

Formal and informal interaction standards help team members understand how and when to interact with each other and improve communication. In particular:

  • Agree on a shared language
    Words have different meanings to different people. Spend time agreeing on common meanings of words used by your team. Consider creating a glossary of key terms that all team members can refer to.
  • Know when to switch to voice or face-to-face communication
    Phone calls or face-to-face meetings works best for ambiguous tasks and conflict resolution. Use e-mail for analysis, reports or routine tasks. Analyze the message being sent–if it’s too ambiguous or requires communicating emotions, don’t use e-mail. When the option of phone or face-to-face is unavailable, prefer synchronous communication technologies like instant messenger over asynchronous technologies like e-mail for brainstorming, strategy discussion and other ambiguous discussions.
  • Use shorter words and sentences
    When communicating internationally, use shorter words and sentences. Team members whose first language isn’t English will understand you better, as likely will native speakers.
  • Practice active listening, even with e-mail
    Active listening, the process of listening then summarizing what you heard, improves communication by surfacing unspoken assumptions and clearing up misunderstandings. Repeat back what you thought was communicated and verify you understood correctly.
  • Provide extra information
    If there are multiple ways of interpreting a question or statement, acknowledge the variations in your response. If it’s quick, I often answer the question multiple ways to minimize the extra e-mails required to clarify which variation was being asked. Otherwise, I answer with the most likely interpretation, but acknowledge I may have misunderstood the question and propose other interpretations.

Other standards you could document include working hours for each member of the team, preferred method of communication and how electronic communication gets recorded and stored for later reference.

4. Use Elance to hire contractors

My company Lab Escape has had great success hiring contractors through Elance. Keys to making this work include:

  • Start small
    Small projects help you build trust by showing progress and surfacing issues early. They also provide a lower risk by reducing the potential loss if a contractor doesn’t work out.
  • Pay for the featured listing
    It only costs $15 and greatly increases the pool of candidates you can evaluate. When hiring for a project where you’ll be spending thousands to tens of thousands of dollars, spend the money to improve your odds of finding the best.
  • Include details
    Describe exactly what your project is, the skills it will require, any resources they might need, how you plan to interview and the expected interactions during the project.
  • Invite contractors
    Don’t rely on contractors to come to you. Search Elance for providers whose skills or keywords match what you are looking for. Read the reviews and ratings for each contractor and invite 8-10 of the best contractors to bid on your project.
  • Rate all proposals and take notes
    Use the rating and notes features to identify which providers appear the best. If any clearly don’t fit, reject them immediately and indicate why.
  • Prepare for interviews
    Interview the top 3-5 candidates. Don’t wing the interview. Write up a set of interview questions beforehand. For technical projects, I often include sample exercises. Develop a consistent method of evaluating the interviews. If you don’t find the right candidate, don’t hire. Invite more contractors or evaluate the wording of your proposal and post again.
  • Rely on trust, not screenshots
    Set up an environment of trust by not using the feature that takes screenshots of the contractor’s desktop. Instead, set up and manage tasks using an online project management tool like Liquid Planner.  People will rise or fall to your level of expectation–so set up high expectations and most people will rise to meet them.

I’ve had great success hiring both domestically and internationally using Elance.

5. Use a professional employer organization to hire employees

Paying unemployment insurance and filing tax returns in dozens of states when you have a distributed team can be a logistical nightmare. Professional employer organizations (PEOs) hire your employees for you, becoming the employer of record for tax purposes and managing all your HR benefits and obligations. Someone mentioned Trinet as a reasonably priced provider. PEOcompare.com allows you to compare companies or just search google for “professional employment organizations” or “co-employment“.

Further Reading

Resources I became aware of after my last article on virtual teams include:

Do you work on a virtual team? What tricks have you learned to make virtual teams work?

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