Learning & Development, Technology

3 Hacks for Virtual Team Collaboration

Virtual teams have always been a reality in the business world, but the COVID-19 pandemic kicked them into high gear. More and more employees became permanently remote, which meant fewer watercooler conversations or opportunities for coworkers to bond. To be fair, it also meant a workforce that had more freedom over their lives with flexible schedules and nonexistent commutes, and also gave employers the opportunity to recruit as far and wide as they’d like. But there’s no denying that remote employees have changed the team-collaboration landscape.

Virtual teams, however, are here to stay. Changing technologies are allowing employees to work from wherever they please, and virtual teams have shown no major decrease in productivity. That means businesses are able to recruit the best and brightest, no matter where they live, and also potentially save money on things like office space. A virtual, or partially virtual, workforce can be a win-win for everyone when implemented correctly.

Being able to successfully work with teammates, whether they’re down the hall or across the globe, is essential for the flourishing of any organization. You want your workplace to be one of collaboration and creativity, even if your work is straightforward and your team is far-flung. Just because most of your team is remote doesn’t mean that you’re unable to provide the support needed for a close team bond and an effective workplace. All it takes some intentional team building—think less trust falls and more real trust. While it might be more difficult to increase trust among teammates when your workplace is virtual, it isn’t impossible. In fact, it’s vital to the success of your company.

Here are three hacks for virtual team building so that your team feels tight, no matter how many miles separate their work stations.

Ensure Ground Rules are in Place

Virtual employees need to have very specific boundaries and ground rules laid out ahead of time. These should be communicated clearly, and in writing. Working virtually obviously brings with it much more flexibility and less oversight. That means expectations need to be clear from the get-go so that both parties (the employer and the employee) are on the same page.

For instance, what are your virtual employee’s work hours? Does it matter if they’re online from 8-5, or is it more important for them to finish their tasks by a certain time? During meetings, do you allow multitasking or do you prefer everyone’s full attention? Are cameras required to be turned on during meetings? Is there a certain level of technology you require virtual employees to utilize, and is your company willing to help pay for upgrades? All of these questions and more need to be formalized. It may feel uncomfortable or overly pedantic, but the best way to prevent difficult conflict down the road is to get everyone in agreement early on.

Without these ground rules, small bumps in the road might turn into massive mountains. Furthermore, in-person employees may get annoyed with the flexibility shown to virtual teammates, or different virtual teammates might feel slighted if they feel one employee is getting more flexibility than they are. Keep everyone on an even playing field by setting up expectations and sticking too them.

Craft Effective Meetings

Virtual team meetings are essential for collaboration, but without a gameplan, you’ll wind up with a bunch of glitchy squares and no actual cohesive action taking place.

Like any other meeting, agendas should be sent out well ahead of time so people can understand what will be discussed and prep as necessary with any pre-readings or tasks they need to complete. Virtual teammates should be kept in the loop just as much as in-person teammates.

Virtual meetings should also start right on time; when people are remote, different time zones or schedules might make it even more important for your employees’ time to be respected. However, it’s good to have a little extra time as a buffer for people to chat and have small talk. Without those water cooler conversations of yesteryear, employees might have a harder time getting to know one another. If people don’t know each other, they’re less likely to propose bold new ideas or critique one another’s positions. The best team collaboration comes from vulnerability and openness, so if teammates barely know one another, you won’t see a very collaborative group of people.

Lastly, if some people are in the office and some are virtual, make sure you’re soliciting opinions and feedback from virtual employees. Otherwise, meetings can quickly turn into a bunch of people talking around a roundtable while a couple of others observe from computer screens. That isn’t very collaborative. Tech checks should be run in advance to make sure everything’s working properly; otherwise, time will be wasted and virtual teammates will feel even further away.

Consider In-Person Offsites

At the end of the day, it’s extremely hard to replicate authentic team bonding online. If you’re going to utilize a virtual team, even partially, it may be worth it to consider hosting in-person offsites. Even if teammates are able to get together once a year, it could provide invaluable bonding and a tight-knit vibe that allows for better teamwork in the future. It might be a major expense on the part of your company, but it also might be something that drives creativity and cohesion, leading to a more successful business in the long run. While virtual team building is possible, and can be fantastic, it’s almost impossible to completely create a bonded team that works well together if they’ve never even had the chance to meet in person. There’s simply something about physically being in the same space that allows for a friendlier, closer collaboration.

Again, this doesn’t have to be very often. Maybe when you first hire an employee, you fly them to your office, or you have a large get-together every other year. But some kind of physical togetherness, no matter how infrequent, can go a really long way.

Claire Swinarski is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.

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