5 Tricks For A Virtual Team To Collaborate Effectively

I logged in to the call at 10AM sharp as scheduled. Our boss didn’t show up on time (again!). Someone asked how everyone is doing. (Like, how do YOU think, Neil?)

Since we were all waiting, Jason started talking about the online course he had just completed and the ‘wonderful’ new hobbies he had picked up. I felt like a dimwit underachiever considering how I am barely hanging on, trying to balance work and household stuff.

(Also, just how does he find the time to attend online classes????)

And even before I had the time to process my ongoing existential crisis, someone started talking about the weather while another made a lame joke, just as the boss joined in.

“Wow, you guys seem to be having fun!” 

I wanted to scream “No, we are barely hanging in here. Instead of making us waste time and lose our minds, please turn up on time for the review that you had scheduled in the first place!

Sound familiar? You’re not the only one. The ‘new normal’ has all of us hanging on by a thread, trying to balance the dirty dishes with piling data sheets! Add to this pandemonium, the never ending web of Zoom calls and virtual catch-ups and you have the perfect recipe for chaos and mayhem!

So, how does a leader go about ensuring smooth collaboration among team members in the virtual setting? Presenting five tricks of the trade that can easily come to your rescue –

1. Overcommunicate

Emails and video calls are easy to misinterpret. In earlier times, team members could pick up a lot more cues from the leader’s body language during a conversation. In the virtual world, ‘over-communicating’ is the key step to ensure smoother collaboration.

A recent Deloitte study calls this piece ‘Strategically Overcommunicate’ –

Another strategy is to ensure that all key conversations happen ‘on the line’ when all team members are present and that side conversations are kept to a minimum. This helps to ensure that team members do not feel out of the loop, which can cause feelings of mistrust.

This is vital to remember in driving change initiatives that need collaboration. Many a time, teams that are not clear on the why? of a change end up with ineffective collaboration because they were off to a bad start. 

2. Leverage Technology

A recent conversation with an HR leader went like this.

“Sometimes, the most frustrating piece is to get the basic infrastructure right. We use a legacy video conferencing system which has very poor video quality. Team members who have used better platforms feel that we are very slow in moving to the new normal even when the disadvantages are so evident. I know that we have a year long contract with the previous vendor, so there is not much I can do.”

Cost pressures are all too real in today’s world and cannot be ignored. However, you would be surprised with the possibilities once you are determined enough to figure out a way past the challenges. Social media can be a powerful catalyst in building more connections for collaboration.

This MIT article highlights how Xilinx used social media for better knowledge management to aid collaboration.

Kevin and the team at Xilinx initially built very small collaborative tools that enabled their design engineers to start the collaboration process and to get experience in understanding what it means. They had successes build upon other successes in terms of how engineers worked with each other as well as with their customers. And they’ve been able to progressively expand their collaborative capability to the point that they’ve raised engineer productivity by about 25%. It’s a great example of how we define the social organization, which is the repeated ability to use mass collaboration to tackle strategic issues and opportunities — as opposed to it just being a one-shot deal.”

3. Power of Play

It is difficult to replicate the natural camaraderie that teams working in the same location seem to have. In the absence of that, it is vital to make the extra effort to ensure that teams feel connected to one another through informal networks. Play can be a powerful medium to build that spirit in the virtual world. However, there is an important caveat. If it is not meaningful, play can lead to the opposite outcomes – teams may feel more disconnected.

Thus, if you are able to put together a meaningful experience for teams that require to collaborate together, then it can be a powerful force. Evivve is a powerful online business simulation that can help virtual teams across functions understand the importance of collaboration through an engaging team experience. This HBR article highlights the use of online games for leaders to build connects with teams.

One major impediment to group collaboration in business is uncertainty about whether an individual will get credit for contributing useful information, especially digital work that can be easily forwarded or repurposed, after it is passed around the organization. Take the case of someone’s e-mail notes that end up in a widely circulated internal document. A virtual currency system that identified the source of digital information and tagged its subsequent use could ensure that the originator would receive credit—formal acknowledgment or some more tangible reward—when those data were forwarded, reused, or cited. That would create a strong incentive to share.”

It is also possible to underline the importance of collaboration through a virtual team building exercise that can be debriefed powerfully around the context of collaboration amongst virtual teams. 

4. Celebrate Often

Like any other change, a mindset of collaboration takes effort. And it is crucial to celebrate the small wins. Leaders need to recognize the instances where a team member puts collaboration first. This is a key step in intra team collaboration. For example, if there are 3 different teams in question, the leaders of these teams can send a powerful message by recognizing the members from the other two teams who have demonstrated collaboration with their own teams.

This HBR article highlights the importance of rituals for the same.

“Creating virtual spaces and rituals for celebrations and socializing can strengthen relationships and lay the foundation for future collaboration. Find ways to shorten the affinity distance. One company we worked with celebrated new talent by creating a personal emoji for each employee who had been there for six months. You can find your own unique way to create team spaces for social connection. How you do it is less important than whether you do.”

5. Team Norms

Setting team norms for collaboration is a vital ingredient. And these need to be co-created with everyone’s inputs. Counter intuitively, efficient structure is good for team norms. So, norms for video meetings, team calls, checkins etc give the team broad guidelines for collaboration. A stellar example would be prioritising work that impacts other teams, first while structuring a collective execution plan. Leaders also need to go the extra mile in building an atmosphere of transparency in the team, with respect to team norms.

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Also, it is important to be upfront that you do not have all the answers. If you have recently moved to a virtual environment, it will take some time for the team norms to be set and for the team to get into the rhythm of working together remotely. It is important that course corrections are done and the reasons behind those shared transparently with the team members. Transparency in performance management is also crucial as per this Gartner article

“Managers often worry about the lack of visibility in the workflows and routines of their remote direct reports. Create a transparent system of performance measurement that quantifies outcomes, not just activities or the amount of time spent on tasks.”

What has been your experience in collaboration in a remote team? Join the conversation?

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