Over the past few years I've been involved with several virtual teams and have seen some of the best, and worst, practices being carried out. On the bad days, I wonder if this whole virtual /digital nomad way of working is really worth all the hype and is good for humanity. On good days, I celebrate how far work life has come and reminisce sweetly about my college entrance essay on "My Fear of the Cubicle" that I wrote when I was young and rebellious 17 year old.
The fact is, whether you like it or not, virtual work is exploding. Every year, advancements in technology make it possible for more and more people to telecommute, giving employees more flexibility and savings in commuting costs. According to Global Network Analytics, from 2004 to 2014 the number of company workers who work from home grew 102.1%, and it continues to increase each year.
While virtual work is a convenience for workers, it has many benefits for employers as well, such as boosting employee moral and saving office costs. However, it does have its challenges, such as how to prevent a disconnect between team members from occurring and how to maintain high levels of productivity at a distance. Although each group is unique, there are a few proven strategies that you can implement to create a motivating environment for your remote team members; it’s merely a matter of finding the right mix of strategies that work for you and your team members.
It is important to define the culture of your company and communicate it up front. Start broad and then get specific. Set cultural expectations and make agreements to stick to them while having the flexibility to observe and change things if something isn't working. Before someone joins or starts a project that involves people working together as a team, it is critical to set the stage by defining the atmosphere of the organization and the culture of how people interact with one another.
Start defining your virtual work culture by answering the following questions:
• What is the general atmosphere that surrounds the teamwork? Is it fast-paced? Stressful? Relaxed? Strict? Flexible? This will help determine expectations.
• What kind of team environment do people wish to have? Focus on those items of high level importance and personal approaches to work to determine the purpose of why you and your team are ultimately coming together. Is it to feel inspired? Connected? Productive? Passionate? Excited? Note some key words and communicate this across the board as a foundational pillar of working together. By defining culture-setting intention and reinforcing it with behavior that matches, a level a trust builds over time.
• What communication tools are utilized and what etiquette applies? For example, in one of my teams, we all agree to use the WhatsApp messaging application sparingly for key topics that only apply to everyone who is a part of the chat. If it does not pertain to all, simply move it to another thread with only the relevant people involved. We try to limit the use of internal email as well and keep conversations task focused in our project management software. Additionally, it is important to define expectations of response time for different types of correspondence.
• How often should we have meetings? Hold regular virtual weekly team meetings and give them top precedence. Stay firm to holding the meetings with regularity and build a momentum that is hard to break. When you have a remote team, these meetings are a team touch point and are your lifeline to being connected and on the same page so treat them with priority.
Encourage team members to show up to the meetings a couple minutes early to ensure everyone is on time and settled in before the meeting starts. This helps to create a culture around time, one that respects each other’s time and the space where the team comes together. It can be very distractive and disrupt team cohesion when you have people entering the virtual meeting room late or having to wait to commence an important discussion until everyone is present. It also creates some time for non-work related chit chat and will give your employees some time to get to know each other outside of “work talk”.
• How do I build camaraderie between employees who may never meet? Do a team challenge. This can be anything from running a 5K to a photo swap to setting up virtual "coffee breaks". Social engagement is a powerful tool that studies show evidence of increasing productivity and ROI.
These are just a few intro topics to explore as you go deeper into virtual work. By answering these few questions, you are on your way to creating a supportive team environment, which will build moral, boost good health and increase productivity with your remote team
Author: Melissa Loh
Mel is a People-Planet-Profit driven business coach, consultant and project manager helping to evolve the future of work and redefine business as usual. Access more of her writing and free resources by subscribing to her newsletter.
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