For years, I led a virtual team. We lived in different cities and time zones, and it was one of the most connected teams I ever had the pleasure to work beside. We were a virtual team that thrived long before FaceTime and Zoom were just a keystroke away. New tools to make working virtually more like working in the office is a good thing, right? Not necessarily.
Today, I spoke with someone who told me they had a six-hour Zoom meeting, and it felt like all they mastered was talking in circles. Someone else on our group call chimed in that they have a four-hour Zoom scheduled for tomorrow. Instead of easing the way for a virtual team to thrive, Zoom seemed like it was getting in the way. Could the primary problem with virtual work be a video platform that enables us to see each other, talk, and collaborate eye to eye from the comfort and safety of our homes? I don’t think so.
Long after this pandemic is behind us, these tips for working together as an effective virtual team will apply:
Have a Purpose and Agenda for Every Meeting
If you previously ran your meetings in the office without an agenda, you were doing a disservice to your team. Your team needs you to publish the agenda in advance, invite the right people, and have your agenda items give more than a clue to the topic at hand. A strong agenda is not only a high-level topic for discussion, but also a prioritized guide for what you want to cover within the timeframe. Lastly, be clear going in on the desired outcome.
Zoom calls and other similar technologies can feel a lot like a free-for-all. Everyone simultaneously talking and chiming in makes it hard to stay on track and for people to be heard. As meeting facilitator, not only should you stick to the agenda, but also work together to establish ground rules for how you want to interact. Are you checking in, sharing info, asking for input, or making decisions? Each of those requires strong facilitation with the purpose in mind.
Check-in 1×1 and as a Team
Now that everyone’s remote, it’s essential to continue the leadership best practice of check-ins with your team. Check in about the progress of the work, but also make time to ask how they’re doing. How are they coping? Strong team relationships go deeper than status updates that could be accomplished via email. Have lunch or morning coffee together as a team to come together to smile, laugh and share stories. It won’t happen unless you make it happen – don’t underestimate the value of connection.
Get intentional about how, what, and when you communicate. Everyone on the team writing the equivalent of a novel in email, sending it out, and expecting it to get read and actioned? Some things can be accomplished via text, others by email, some you need to pick up the phone, and others see eye-to-eye. Know the difference. Also, remember that information dissemination isn’t the same as context. Alignment of action requires why and not only what. Oh, and don’t forget to regularly communicate your appreciation and recognition of those people on your team who are doing their best to serve your clients.
Trust is Everything
You can’t see what someone is doing all day? Horror! They need to take off a few hours in the afternoon to help out their family and log back in at night or start early? Who do they think they are?! Come on. Teams are nothing without trust. If you don’t trust your team, you’ve got an issue that’s much bigger than working virtually.
There’s a lot of talk about the new normal, and this isn’t it. Not only are people working from home, but also they can’t choose to leave and live their lives as they did only a few months ago. There’s no running out to the store over lunch or even working from a coffee shop for a change of view.
Today, for those of us who can work from home, it’s not a personal choice but a mandated one. I have a friend who has asked her employer for years for a few days a week working from home, and consistently told it couldn’t work. Now we know that necessity creates opportunities. While we’re forced into it now, we’re also learning how to lead virtual teams to success.
Will leaders still tell their teams it’s impossible to work from home once the restrictions are only a memory? There are costs for commutes in both time and dollars as well as costs for leasing and managing large buildings with countless offices. It’s yet to be seen what the future will bring in the world of work. Virtual teams are likely to be with us for a while, and as leaders and team members, we should be all-in on figuring out not only how to get by in the virtual world but how to thrive.