Three keys to creating cohesive virtual teams

| December 6, 2017

As the modern workplace continues its acceleration into the virtual space, managers must embrace new methods to create cohesive virtual teams.

In the virtual era, how you manage communication, set expectations and build trust take on new importance as virtual employees search for connection, clarity and a shared sense of purpose.

Get it right and you’ll create a cohesive virtual team that will achieve impressive new levels of productivity. Here are the three management secrets you must know to create a cohesive virtual team:

1. Communicate with clarity 
Communicating with your virtual team calls for a complete management mindshift. Gone are the days when you could drop by an employee’s desk unannounced to check on the progress of their work, add to their brief, or identify any potential sticking points in the workflow. Likewise, your virtual employee can’t pop their head into your office to seek clarification, bounce an idea off you, or flag any roadblocks.

That means communication with your virtual team must be absolutely clear. Schedule formal virtual meetings and informal catch-ups on a regular basis and use a mixture of technology. For example, use video conferencing to formally brief your team, then follow up with individual Skype calls to ensure all employees understand their individual roles.

Also, be available to your team via instant messaging or chat to answer questions as they arise throughout the day, and schedule regular work-in-progress calls – voice or video – to ensure that milestones are being met and workflow is tracking as planned.

If you’re working in different time zones where instant messaging or live chat isn’t realistic, ask your virtual team to email work-in-progress reports at the end of each allotted working day to flag any potential hold ups or arising obstacles.

It’s also vital to utilise cloud-based project management software – such as Citrix Podio or Zoho Projects – that often feature in-built communication, shared calendars and documents, and workflow scheduling that will keep all your virtual workers on track and accountable to clear project milestones and deadlines.

2. Define expectations

It’s almost impossible to micro manage a virtual employee, so you must set clear expectations around acceptable response times, availability and completeness of work that help define the playing field for independent workers.

For example, you must define what ‘urgent’ means in the virtual context where employees may be operating under different time zones. What is an acceptable time window for response to an urgent email? How long should it take them to return an instant message or phone call? Do you expect virtual employees to acknowledge receipt of a request before beginning work on it?

It’s also vital to set clear expectations around employee availability. The virtual environment allows for much greater flexibility. Rather than the traditional nine-to-five working day, the virtual employee may choose to work to his or her own schedule, and time differences may also limit crossover periods when virtual employees are ‘at work’ together.

You need to be clear about how often you expect a virtual employee to check-in with you and other key team members, and when they are required to be available for compulsory team web conferences.

Setting standards that define the completeness of a request or response is also key to keeping your virtual team on track. Think about setting clear guidelines about how your virtual team should structure a request. For example, ensure your virtual employees include clear instructions, priority levels, deadlines and expected outcomes in all of their requests and responses to each other to ensure cohesive team communication.

3. Build team trust

Trust between virtual employees, and trust between virtual employee and manager are crucial to ensuring team cohesion. This comes with the time and experience needed to establish reliability, and there are few shortcuts here.

Consistent communication and clear expectations will certainly go a long way to building trust, and establishing shared goals will also help your virtual team pull together.

Never assume that all your virtual employees have an automatic knowledge of what you’re trying to achieve. Rather, be clear about project goals – short and long term – and the role each virtual employee will play to achieve them. This will create a sense of teamwork that is often lacking in the virtual work environment.

And remember to acknowledge good work during team video calls. Noting a virtual employee’s individual performance in front of the team will not only make that employee feel validated, but will also build the entire team’s confidence – and trust – in the ability of that virtual employee.

Managed correctly, your virtual team will not only reach a new level of cohesion, but will also likely achieve a new level of productivity unmatched in the physical work environment.

Ruth MacKay

Ruth MacKay is the founder and managing director of OURTEL Solutions where she manages a 100 per cent virtual workforce. Ruth is also the author of a new book, The 21st Century Workforce.