The expansion of talent networks and the vast improvements in technology and connectivity mean that the search for talent has become a global market. Companies are now competing for the best people everywhere in the world. But to do that, they need to master virtual teams and projects.
Having run many virtual teams over the years myself and now coaching several virtual teams and companies, there are certain best practices that I follow. While working together in the same space every day has significant advantages, getting virtual teams to work well can often be the best and only option.
1. Clarify roles and responsibilities.
While it's true for all teams, clarifying roles and responsibilities for virtual teams is critical. Knowing who is doing what, and what they are not doing, will ensure balls aren't dropped and allow people to work confidently knowing their scope.
I like having a one-page summary of each role on the team describing their key eight to 10 responsibilities. I include key success metrics that show what is expected on a weekly basis. I also include links, examples, and templates to help clarify and set expectations.
2. Define core processes and handoffs.
Every business and every team has a set of critical processes that cut across functional roles. These need to be defined so people understand their roles in the overall system. I also like to assign an owner to the process who is looking across functions and departments to coordinate and optimize the flow. Without a defined way of working and someone to ensure success, balls will get dropped and problems will quickly appear.
3. Establish solid meeting rhythms.
Virtual teams don't have the natural rhythm of people arriving in the office, having lunch, and ending the day together. These natural cycles are important to create a team rhythm. And if your team cuts across multiple time zones, this is an even bigger challenge.
Setting up a weekly team planning meeting and a daily huddle creates a natural team heartbeat that will set a solid pace. Keeping these meetings to the same time every week and day and using a standard agenda and timeframe will help establish them as habits for the team.
4. Formalize informal meeting time.
Virtual teams don't have the benefit of ad hoc time together. There is no water cooler and they don't share the elevator together in the morning. It's easy to forget how important this time is to connect to learn about people outside the office. This informal sharing is what builds team trust and respect, which is the foundation to any high-performance team.
For virtual teams, this informal time needs to be formalized. Start each business meeting with five to 10 minutes of personal sharing and conversational openers. I also encourage teams to have "video lunches" once a week where everyone jumps on a group video call for 30 minutes to have a meal together. Also, consider things like lightning talks and team learning events.
5. Invest in meeting tools.
Virtual teams are highly dependent on technology. Documents, chats, repositories, video conferencing, etc. are critical and without them, the team would grind to a halt. Take the time to consider and select the best tools for the team and then invest in high-quality technology and training. Make sure everyone knows how to use each tool and has the resources to take advantage of it.
Pay close attention to team members with constraints and challenges. The team will be as strong as your weakest links and if you elevate them, you'll elevate the team. I've had some teams ship new computers with everything installed and configured so they are up and running from day one.
6. Meet in-person quarterly.
While it can be a large investment for many teams, meeting in person for a day or two each quarter can go a long way in building better connections and relationships. The nature and depth of a connection that develops after spending a full day together in person is not something you can do online. And that connection will go a long way over the coming months to create trust and respect while people are working together remotely.
The fact is that virtual teams are quickly becoming the norm rather than an exception. As the competition for talent moves to the global stage, the companies who master these techniques will create a significant competitive advantage.