Leading Remotely: 7 Ways to Improve Virtual Teams

Questions to consider + 7 ways to improve virtual teams

Virtual Team Building Belle Communications Kate Finley

Leading and managing teams is a work in progress. If you lead a team, you know that there really isn’t a point where you can sit back and say, “Hey, this looks great so I think I’ll take a break for a few weeks.” If you lead a team, you know that statement is not only unwise, it’s also hilarious.

Instead, we’re reading books on leadership, listening to podcasts, perusing business magazines and looking to other respected leaders for the latest insight into how to build and strengthen our teams. It’s a continual process.

Questions to Consider as We Improve Virtual Teams

Add the challenge of a virtual work environment to the mix, and your leadership goals and outcomes begin to blur as you find yourself asking questions such as:

  • Do traditional leadership approaches and team building tactics apply to virtual teams?
  • How can I keep team members engaged individually and with each other despite physical distance?
  • How can I foster trust for leadership and team members?
  • How can I gauge if team members are challenged enough since I can’t see what they’re doing?
  • Are there processes and best practices that we should implement differently since we’re virtual? If so, which ones and why?
  • How do I empower virtual team members to take leadership roles and build into the rest of the team?
  • What’s the optimal virtual team size? What should I do if I exceed it?
  • How many in-person meetings should we hold each year? Do we need them at all?
  • Am I doing things as a leader that are hurting or hindering the success of our virtual team?
  • How do we add “just for fun” elements to build camaraderie?

These are just some of the questions that come up when you’re leading a virtual team. As with any team, it’s essential to have the right leadership in place to best empower your team to grow and to strengthen the team as a whole.

7 Ways to Improve Virtual Teams

Although virtual teams do present unique challenges and require different approaches to those of traditional teams, studies indicate that a well-managed virtual team can, in fact, outperform those that share office space. Below are some key points I found most relevant as a virtual team leader.

  1. Foster community early and often. 
    A great way to do this is to have a standard onboarding process in place, which can be similar to that of a traditional workplace by pairing new team members with mentors. You can assign a current team member to be a “go-to” for the new team member to help answer questions and show the ropes. Some other ideas include brief check-ins prior to conference calls and taking time to show the team your physical office space over video.
  2. Encourage and advocate for open communication.
    You must be an advocate for communication and encourage team members to speak their opinions in a constructive, receptive environment. Establish ground rules for sharing to ensure that everyone gets to voice their opinion. As with any group it can be easy to let a one team member dominate the conversation while other team members listen or are overlooked. This can be especially difficult with virtual teams due to the lack of side-conversations or seeing a team member’s reaction after a conference call. Video calls can really help here.
  3. Be clear with goals and guidelines.
    You must communicate goals, guidelines and timelines in a way that is clear to your team. When you’re functioning within a virtual team, it’s easier to make assumptions so be diligent about clearly assigning tasks and requesting the type and frequency of status updates. We use Teamwork Projects to help manage projects and tasks, as well as frequent real-time communication and status updates in Slack.
  4. Make the most of team gatherings and prohibit multi-tasking.
    To help make the most of team time together, provide an agenda prior to the meeting and use video whenever possible to ensure everyone is engaged. To help train your team to keep from multi-tasking, ask that they close all projects and email before beginning the meeting.
  5. Look for ways to have fun and build camaraderie. 
    We do this through weekly team hangout time and daily touchpoints via video. We’ve done virtual baby showers and other parties, complete with games (baby-themed Price Is Right was a hit!) and gifts (optional of course – just share the registry and allow plenty of advance notice for people to purchase and ship gifts). We’ve even had the occasional dance party over video.
  6. Celebrate milestones.
    It’s important to take time to celebrate the amazing things we’ve accomplished together. That includes the big things, like achieving goals we’ve set as an agency and for our client campaigns. But take time to acknowledge the small victories, too. Stop the mayhem for a couple minutes, pull the team together on video and recognize the success.
  7. Make the most of technology by enlisting the right tools for your team.
    When you’re managing a virtual team, you need the best tools to streamline processes, manage projects and keep the lines of communication clear. Here are the tools we use.

Overall, I think the tendency is to see virtual teams as being potentially less effective or cohesive than in-person teams due to barriers of geography and in-person contact. Although virtual teams do present unique challenges and require different approaches to those of traditional teams, studies indicate that a well-managed virtual team can, in fact, outperform those that share office space.

Keep these points in mind as you look toward growing and building your virtual team.

Kate Finley

Founder + CEO of Belle
Currently thriving in Puerto Rico