Starting tips for virtual teams

We coach, develop and work alongside leaders and teams to shift ideas on leadership and provide the skills and tools needed to grow teams.

Author: Phil Hartwick
First Published: 2020


Here are a few techniques and tips to help your group work remotely but together.

1. As early as possible, agree the protocols or ground rules for your team calls or chats (I’ll call these ‘collabs’ from here on). For example, do you need to see each other the entire time or is audio-only fine? Can people do other work (e.g. type on a keyboard or text on a phone) while on the call? How will we deal with lateness or absences? Will there be an agenda and meetings notes? (see #4 and #9 below). What types of things will we share and discuss in team meetings? (see #5).

2. Use a moderator or facilitator to run each collab. Get the team to discuss and agree what they think is needed to help the collabs go as smoothly as possible and therefore what the role and powers of the moderator should be. Ask for a volunteer to take on the role for the first few meetings to get some consistency and plan to share the role with others over time. It is important that this person has the skill to make sure everyone has an opportunity to contribute and that discussions are not dominated by only a few individuals, including the team’s leader. Although the team’s leader is an option to be the moderator, they may not be best suited and may tend to dominate and overly influence any team discussion.

3. Agree together a sensible cadence and restricted time limit for your on-line or conference call meetings and agree when you will review this. You may want to have more than one type of meeting with different cadence and time limits; for example a 15 minute check-in first thing each morning and a longer two-hour meeting once a week. Remember, meetings are hard at the best of times – and having to listen intently through a phone or watch others through a screen makes it even harder to stay focused for extended periods of time.

4. Develop a discipline of using a robust agenda, (ideally circulated ahead or addressed at the start of the call), that is broken into 1) standing items (to be covered on each collab) and 2) special items. To keep the pace of discussion flowing, what works well is when each special item contains the following details:

    • The topic (what the focus is),

    • the background (why we are talking about this now),

    • the objective (what is required from the group) and,

    • time limit for the discussion (this one is important).

5.Try to anticipate and be clear about the types of things you need to keep each other informed of and how you will do this, and what you need the whole team to discuss and decide together. Things that are mainly to be shared with the team, but require no discussion or decision-making, are probably best tackled via email. Where it is important for the team to discuss, debate, question and make a decision or take action on, these items are best addressed in collabs.

6. Achieve clarity about the team’s collective priorities. Review progress on these often and reset them as frequently necessary. Priority re-setting should be discussed by the entire team to understand why it is a priority, identify the potential challenges and risks, and buy-in to a plan of attack. We suggest using some form of on-line work tracker to monitor progress on team priorities like an on-line Kanban board. Here’s a list of 10 you could consider.

7. Use a sub-commissioning strategy to more rapidly execute the team’s work. Watch out for long, overly detailed and circling team discussions that drain energy and slow down the pace. When this happens, take action to sub-commission the work to a smaller team of 1-3 people with one leader. Agree standing rules for how sub-commissioned teams need to work together and consult with others. For each piece of work that is to be tackled by a sub-team, involve the team in scoping the work, clarify who is responsible, accountable, needs to be consulted, or informed. Make sure the sub-team’s work progress is tracked.

8. Review how the collabs are working after a month or so and get the team to speak openly about what would make them better. Take action on improvements as quickly as possible so that your meetings don’t get stale.

9. Make sure that decisions and agreed actions are recorded during each meeting. Ideally these are created visually in such a manner that everyone can see what is written to minimise misunderstanding and ensure a record is kept. A good way to start every meeting is to review progress against previous actions.

10. Get the team to regularly discuss how individuals are feeling and where possible, find a way to bring them together periodically to have some social time. Relationships and support can become compromised when team members have to work remotely from each other for extended periods. Team spirit and motivation is buoyed by the feeling of belonging and association.

Working remotely is challenging but can be made effective through strong group communication and collaboration disciplines and management. Good luck and let’s make the most of our time together on-line!

Phil Hartwick is a director of Updraft – a team development consultancy.

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