The Ultimate Guide to Managing Virtual Teams

The Ultimate Guide to Managing Virtual Teams

10.03.2021

The Case for Building a Virtual Team

After 2020’s massive unplanned, ad hoc, worldwide shift to remote work, creating a case for virtual teams may seem redundant. We’ve witnessed organizations all over the world and in all industries change their work structures out of concern for the safety and wellbeing of their staff, clients, patrons, and colleagues.

When considering if virtual teams will work for them, most organizations went from “Should we?” to “We must.”

With remote work now a part of every company’s strategy, it’s time to make virtual teams smart, strong, innovative, and productive.

While the road that led us to where we are is atypical, we can embrace the opportunities it presents. Virtira has worked remotely for more than a decade, and we can confirm: the reasons for building and strengthening a virtual team extend far beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the last number of years, companies have begun to dip their toes into the remote work waters to test productivity and employee satisfaction. Now (albeit with a slightly forced hand), many organizations are learning that home-based employees are a viable way forward.

With remote work now a new part of every company’s strategy, it’s time to make virtual teams smart, strong, innovative, and productive – and virtual teamwork rewarding.

The Good News

The rapid rise of remote work may seem like an inevitable consequence of unprecedented and unpredictable times, but the positive impacts of virtual teams mean the new normal is here to stay.

If you’re not convinced, just consider a few of these benefits to employers, employees, teams, clients, and the world:

Virtual teams can also be more widely dispersed, allowing members to live and work where they please. Employers gain access to larger talent pools, employees can pursue fulfilled lives, and small communities benefit through revitalization and economic growth.

Sounds like a winning formula.

The Bad News

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Virtual teams can work well for everyone involved, but collaborating successfully within one comes with a learning curve and goes far beyond more relocating your company laptop to your kitchen table and powering up.

When a virtual team tries to collaborate online – especially when working cross-functionally – they can run into new challenges. That’s normal.

Unfortunately, there’s a dirty little secret about virtual cross-functional projects: they usually fail.

Why are so many cross-functional projects doomed to failure? What are the keys to success? 

Here are a few important considerations:

  • Teams may be experiencing a lack of systemic approach, unclear governance, and/ or the absence of accountability.
  • Team members may struggle to meet planned budget, and stay on schedule, or adhere to roles and specifications.
  • Cross-functional team members cite lack of collaboration and poor communication as responsible for workplace failures.
  • Cross-functional projects require high-level buy-in to put the team first.

The Solutions

With so many factors contributing to such a high failure rate, and the added burden of dispersed workers and completely virtual teams, how are cross-functional teams supposed to succeed?

In our experience, we’ve identified three key areas for success when working virtually:

Stay Organized

The first common problem we see in new and inexperienced virtual teams is a tendency to get disorganized quickly. Without structured office space, and constant informal and formal check-ins, files get lost, people lose track of tasks, and focus shifts. Cross-functional teams can be disjointed at the best of times. Add in a new method of virtual communication and all hope may seem lost.

Here are some tips to help your team excel:

  • Plan with Whiteboards: You can’t all just pile into the conference room and brainstorm your way through lunch. Instead, consider implementing online whiteboarding tools like MIRO to help visually communicate ideas, draw and link process flows.
  • Nurture your Newbies: Cross-functional team members change frequently. It’s essential that someone new to the project has the ability to get quickly up to speed and be a productive team member. Try using a project dashboard, with a summary of the project charter as a snapshot for newcomers.
  • Empower Escalation: Projects can fail because leadership demands unrealistic, unattainable goals. Empower your employees to speak up about these not-yet but soon-to-be disasters with structured and anonymous warning systems.

Stay Accountable

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A Status Slide is a simple tool to quickly update virtual teams.

Download Status Slide Examples

To ensure your virtual team delivers on time, your team leaders need to keep everyone accountable. When your entire team is working from home, normal ways of catching up on projects go out the door. There’s a far greater awareness of accountability when everyone’s working in the same building than when they’re spread out all over town.

It’s time to adopt more formal and direct ways of checking in and getting results.

Here’s where to start:

  • Assume No One Will Deliver Anything on Time: Be proactive in reminding people of what you need from them, because invariably they’ll forget, or it’ll be shoved way down to the bottom of their to-do list. Dashboards can be a big help in facilitating follow-up.
  • Keep a Set Schedule: Build clear expectations around reporting on assignments and submitting status updates daily or from week to week. Schedule regular departmental meetings with set agendas with individual times to review each status report.
  • Hit the Record Button: Even with extensive minutes, meeting details can be missed. Save the headache and take advantage of the benefits of meeting virtually – just hit record.

Our free resources are tools proven to enable virtual team accountability. Click here to find what works for you.

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Stay Connected

Staying “connected” isn’t as simple as it sounds. In virtual cross-functional teams, it refers to two distinct, but related concepts.

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First, "connected" refers to the ties that bind us – the technology, platforms, and programs that facilitate communication on a team. We are virtually connected through the online tools that allow us to do what we do.

Next, it refers to the intangible connections between team members - how we overcome the boundaries of physical location and WFH isolation to collaborate and get results.

Let’s start with some tech tips:

  • Master Online Meetings: Your dispersed team has to meet well to work. Nothing kills productivity like technical difficulties. At the very least, you should know how to record meetings, use rotating intro slides, do online polls and voting, mute everyone, manage breakout sessions, and change participant views. 
  • Keep it in the Cloud: Local storage of company data is not only a security risk, it can cause many an operational migraine. Avoid duplicating efforts or wasting time searching for files when everything should be quickly available online. Just make sure a designated person is responsible for a physical, double back up.
  • Dodge Disorder with Dashboards: Check your action items, everyone else’s action items, templates, status reporting, who is slacking and who’s killing it, as well as risks, blockages, and links to any departmental information you need to find.

Technology is your best friend when it comes to unifying your team and keeping everyone headed in the same direction. When your team can access the same up-to-date information, there’s no room for confusion or mistakes. 

Get our top collaboration tools — from templates to guides — on our Resources Page.

Now, let’s tackle team collaboration. Whether you’re a remote work veteran or brand new to working from home, your team members will sometimes face isolation and disconnection. Virtual teams require a conscious, direct effort to keep them engaged and connected.

care for their wellbeing, and ensure your team is a high-functioning one with the following tips:

  • Check In Regularly: Seems obvious, but dedicating effort, whether it’s through a manager, HR, or third party, can address virtual team connection issues before they escalate. Yes, check in to see how someone is doing on a project or with their action items, but also on how your teammates are adjusting to remote work, how they’re managing their WFH environment, how they feel about certain virtual interactions that could have been misunderstood.
  • Keep Everyone in the Loop: Make an effort to engage all stakeholders early, even if they won’t be involved until much later in the process. This way, you make yourself known and you also avoid someone popping up at the last minute and stopping your progress in its tracks. 
  • Never Assume: Here’s a hard truth: most people are much more preoccupied with themselves than you. On meetings and in communication, quickly recap the basics of a specific project. Otherwise, you’ll discover that the next meeting will be devoted to everyone trying to remember what happened during the last one.

Always Be Prepared

Companies everywhere are discovering people are just as productive — if not more — when they work remotely.

Progressive managers are looking at our new virtual reality and seeing how it can lead to future success. Companies everywhere are discovering people are just as productive, if not more, when they work remotely.

With lower costs for infrastructure, no commutes, more flexibility, and better work-life balance, it’s a win-win to have teams working from home. But, as we look forward, how can we overcome the obstacles, and limitations of physically distancing to prepare us for permanent virtual teams?

Here’s what smart virtual team managers are doing:

  • Supersizing Social Networking: Beef up your bonds and get to know your team better. Establish and nurture internal social networks so people can have random, non-work-related dialogues. Get to know each other on a more personal level. That helps develop trust and allows for more candid and open dialogues when they’re necessary for project success. 
  • Continuously Confirming Culture: Create a shared purpose and set of values to strengthen bonds and put everyone on the same page. Just know this must come after you successfully transition to work online. You can’t build culture in chaos. Once your team is virtually competent and organized, let the culture-building begin!
  • Adding Personality: To get to know each other better, a fun exercise is for everyone to take personality tests and share each other’s results. Beyond just entertainment value, understanding each other’s personalities also gives your team “hidden keys” on how best to deal with each other. You learn what your colleagues do and don’t respond to.

Final Thoughts

Building strong virtual teams in the longterm depends on solidifying many intangible factors. Though there is a method to the madness, sometimes it’s not an exact science.

Managing virtual teams depends on the ability of your organization, management team, and individual team members to come together with a shared purpose. Then, arm yourself with the right tools, commit to learning, and embrace all the possibilities of remote work.

Your team has unique needs and will require a unique approach. If you’re still struggling to keep productivity high, engage employees while they work from home, or deliver on a project, we can help.

Contact us now to see how our services can work for your virtual team.

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