How to Work as a Team When you’re Miles Apart

As I write this article, I’m six miles above the ground, on my way to Germany with not a single team member on the plane. In other words, I’m working virtually. Because we’ve got the right procedures and technology in place, the team can basically carry on as if I were back in San Diego.

Virtual teams are no longer a hypothetical discussion by the prophets of the 90’s; they’re a reality today. There are a few factors that have converged to create and allow for this climate such as a global economy, reliable technology, and a *mostly* tech-enabled world (full disclosure: I’m typing this article on my iPhone as there are no power outlets for my laptop on the plane–so we’re not quite there yet).

It turns out that I’m not alone: according to a Society for Human Resources Study, 46% of organizations polled use virtual teams. Naturally, virtual teamwork is even more common in large multinational companies, with 66% reporting the use of virtual teams.

That’s a lot of virtual communication! However, before we address how companies succeed in this, it’s important to understand why organizations operate this way.

Most do it because they have to. For some companies, it’s almost impossible to work in the same vicinity as all colleagues and team members.

Sometimes, a key player moves and the company wants to keep them onboard, virtually.

In other situations, the company has moved and gives employees the option to stay and work virtually.

And then there are the other companies who offer virtual work for better work-life integration. With the ability to work virtually, employees can technically be paid to work from the beaches of Aruba, and they have the option to work from home if they or a family member are under the weather. Shockingly, having the ability to work virtually actually boosts productivity, and less shockingly, increases employee engagement.

No matter how the virtual team was formed, one thing is certain: teamwork is still required.

So how do virtually-connected organizations facilitate teamwork?

Meet in Person

Sounds kinda hypocritical doesn’t it? However, no matter how technically advanced our work situations become, we are still humans who understand other people better through the use of our senses.

If your virtual team members are within driving distance of each other, make it a habit of meeting in person to regularly touch base on project details.

If your virtual team members aren’t within driving distance of each other, one meeting at the beginning of the project is still highly beneficial.

Meeting in person at least once will build trust and camaraderie, which are both important to teams, in person, or virtually. When working virtually on a project, it’s important for everyone to know that there is a person behind the text they read in emails and behind the voice they hear on the phone. Better teamwork is born from empathy.

David Kelley, CEO of IDEO (named one of the most innovative companies, by the Boston Consulting Group), subscribes to this theory as well. “There still is no substitute for getting people together face-to-face. Even if only for the first week,” Kelley says about meeting in person when working on a project. Kelley continues:

“The reason is friendships get made and bonds are formed when having dinner together after hours and during sidebar conversations about what people have in common – such as hobbies and other interests. In a videoconference participants are not likely going to be able to have those types of conversations.”

If you can’t get all of your team members together more than once due to geography, you as the leader should visit on a regular basis to build a relationship with them and communicate on behalf of the rest of the team.

When projects are heavily reliant on creativity, working virtually can actually backfire. This is because creativity thrives in a collaborative environment. Many successful organizations settle on a mix of virtual work and in-house collaboration, such as Google. Experiment to find out what works best for your team’s creative process.

Use Technology

Technology is truly what has enabled us to work virtually. Without collaborative tools, it would be difficult to work virtually.

Some of the most collaborative tools are:

  • Google Drive – Edit documents in real time
  • Basecamp & Trello– Collaborate and share progress on projects
  • Skype – One-on-one video chat
  • Google Hangouts – Similar to Skype, but it’s for groups and allows sharing of documents

All of the above tools are exciting! However, don’t get caught in the trap of using technology for technology’s sake.

New and stable technology may be cool, but bleeding-edge technology generally causes more problems than it solves.

A great example of this can be found in an early episode of HBO’s comedy, Silicon Valley. Warning: strong language is present, as is usually the case with glitchy technology.

Learn from the Results Only Work Environment Movement

When working in a small business office, a lot of time is wasted. According to an annual Wasting Time at Work Survey, 43% of employees surveyed stated that socializing causes them to miss the most work, followed by 28% who said that their internet surfing causes them to miss the most work.

In some small businesses, employees are even viewed as glorified benchwarmers. The boss expects them to put their time in, work, and leave. However, in virtual teams the focus shifts from the clock to the scoreboard. Results are what matters here, not butts in seats.

This is where the concept of a Results Only Work Environment, commonly called ROWE, comes in.

ROWE is a radical idea that employees should not be governed on how and where they do their work, only on the results. The ROWE movement has its proponents and opponents.

Like all management theories, it has its flaws. Butts in seats ensures coverage and physical collaboration in the office, while ROWE places the focus on results. Both have their merits and downsides. ROWE will likely increase employee engagement, while a butts in seats policy ensures office coverage.

Luckily you don’t have to officially adopt a ROWE; you can merely adopt the philosophy.

Set goals on the team level and on the individual level, and hold employees accountable to achieving those results, regardless of where they work.

Leading a virtual team may have different challenges than leading a physical team, but it’s not impossible. Adopting the above strategies will facilitate teamwork, even when you’re thousands of miles apart. When lead right, your virtual team can result in increased productivity and employee engagement.

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