Building Better Virtual Teams: Be Proactive

It’s a fact of modern office life: We all have to conduct business remotely. Many of us lead teams of far-flung colleagues or reports. This has been true for a while, but especially so over the last 2.5 years.

This isn’t easy. We all know that absorbing information delivered virtually is much more difficult than in person; it is harder to build connection; it is harder to grab and keep attention; and it’s much easier to multitask while virtual, especially with your video off. As a leader, it can be difficult to gauge what’s happening on the other end of the line, and figure out how to compensate.

So, what’s the answer? Do we need to know how to correct people who are not paying attention during the meeting? Perhaps. Do we need to have the skill to create engagement while remote? Certainly. But the best solutions are to create a team ethos that creates norms and encourages behaviors, ahead of time, so that when those calls come along, there are clear expectations already in place. The best solutions are not the reactive ones, correcting people when they behave badly. The best solutions are the proactive ones that lay out clear expectations and behaviors.

A few techniques can help make you feel closer:

  • Create connection opportunities, frequently. The hardest part of working with a virtual team is not feeling connected with each other. Try to have “getting to know you” calls, in which every member shares some personal information. Or send around biographies that include information beyond a professional role. Facilitate more casual conversations via the group instant message platform. (Don’t have a group instant message platform? Get one.)
  • Carefully communicate around goals and progress. This is important for any team, but for those working remotely, it is even more important to keep people in touch with goals, decisions and progress. The team leader needs to take the initiative to communicate with every team member so that everyone feels aligned and motivated.
  • Stay plugged in. Schedule weekly or bi-weekly meetings to review goals and progress, and give time for any issues to be brought up. Since you don’t have the opportunity to bump into each other in the hallway or swing by someone’s desk, it’s important to create a regular, predictable time for people to share ideas, address problems and trade information.
  • Make it personal. Add a few minutes to your regular meeting to acknowledge your team members by noting significant work accomplishments, anniversaries or birthdays.
  • Hold occasional, in-person gatherings. Whenever possible, try to get your team together in person, even if only once a year.
  • Use video, not voice. Make the visual connection that video conferencing makes possible, and make it a team norm. Being able to see each other not only forges stronger bonds; it helps people stay focused on the task at hand. When everyone is visible, the team leader can spot when someone drifts off and bring them back in to focus on the task at hand.
  • Set expectations. Let people know that you will ask questions and call on people in every meeting, and you will be actively seeking their participation. Make sure no one feels blindsided by a call to participation, and plant the seed that they should be looking for opportunities to jump in.
  • Cultivate participation. Ask questions. Tap someone to give a project update. Share your screen, and have a team member pull up documents while you continue to run the meeting. Use polling software to keep people engaged and gather data from those less likely to speak up. The more opportunities people have to be active in a remote meeting, the less likely they will be to drift off, check their email or start preparing for their next meeting.

It’s undeniable that managing a virtual team has unique challenges, but they don’t need to be insurmountable. With some proactive planning, cultivating a strong, efficient team that communicates clearly and effectively while remote is well within your reach.

We believe that great communication skills change the world. We transform people and organizations of all sizes with simple, repeatable techniques, through an integrated platform of corporate training, coaching, and asynchronous learning.

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Brett Slater

A book about change

The Latimer Corporation’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.