Virtual team: 10 ways to build a collaborative culture

Team Asana contributor imageTeam AsanaAugust 13th, 202111 min read
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If we learned one thing in 2020 it’s that remote work is possible. The myths that virtual teams are less productive, it’s impossible to connect through just a screen, or that remote work reduces career growth have officially been busted. 

According to the 2020 state of remote work report, almost 70% of full-time workers in the U.S. worked from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. With more teams working from home and many organizations offering full-time remote work, it’s crucial for managers and leaders to understand what makes virtual teams successful.

As the manager of a virtual team, you’ve likely asked yourself how you can cultivate strong team culture in a remote world, create effective and efficient workflows, and combat loneliness and lack of motivation. We’re here to provide some solutions.

How to manage virtual teams

How to manage virtual teams

The key elements to leading and managing a successful virtual team aren’t all that different from those needed for traditional teams. However, implementing these elements on a virtual team is especially critical for creating an environment where team members are engaged, productive, and efficient:

  • Trust: Trust empowers your teammates, makes everyone more flexible, and creates a more rewarding work environment from the start. Encourage your team to take reasonable risks and to solve problems on their own when appropriate.

  • Motivation: When you can’t high five your team members for achieving something or have a motivational chat over lunch, you need to find more creative ways to keep everyone engaged and encouraged.

  • Autonomy: You can’t monitor what your team does when they work from home—and you shouldn’t! Give them the autonomy to create their own schedule and trust that they’ll get their work done on time. It’s okay if they do their laundry in the middle of the workday as long as they meet their deadlines.

  • Communication: Perhaps one of the most challenging but crucial elements to leading a successful virtual team is clear and effective communication. Face-to-face interactions will likely be rare so prioritize effective workplace communication to ensure that your team members feel heard, seen, and supported.

  • Collaboration: Besides a teamwork-focused mindset, you’ll also need to provide your team with the right tools to collaborate with each other. Shared documents, messaging tools, and collaborative work management tools are key components to making a virtual team work.

Try Asana for remote teams

Keep these key elements in mind when managing your remote team but also know that there are additional factors that build the foundation for a successful virtual team. Here’s a roundup of our favorite tips to hire and lead a highly collaborative and well performing remote team.

1. Hire the right team

Remote hiring opens up a whole new world of opportunities and challenges. You’re no longer restricted to finding people in your area and can hire from a much bigger talent pool. However, geographically dispersed teams have to rely on more than just talent. Team members have to show excellent communication skills and be self-sufficient, results-driven, and capable of keeping themselves motivated in an isolated environment.

The myth that virtual teams are less productive than traditional teams was busted during the pandemic. In fact, 75% of people reported being just as or more productive while working from home. 

To find the right people for your virtual team, ask specific questions about their work ethic during the interview to get a better feeling of whether or not they’ll work well in a remote world. Here are a few examples:

  • Why do you prefer to work from home?

  • What do you need in your physical work space to be productive?

  • How do you stay focused on your tasks?

  • How do you switch off from work at the end of the day?

You should also consider the size of your team. Think about team sports—in most sports, teams consist of five to 12 players on the field. As soon as you add more team members (at work or in sports), you risk individuals feeling like their contribution to a project doesn’t matter as much anymore. This effect is called social loafing and it’s a good reason to keep teams to roughly 10 members or less.

2. Create an inclusive onboarding experience

Onboarding virtual team members is a whole different ball park than onboarding people in an office setting. You’ll have to create opportunities for new members to get to know their teammates because they won’t just run into each other in the hallway.

Here are a few ideas to create a more memorable, inclusive onboarding experience for your remote hires:

  • Send a welcome package: To make the new member feel welcomed and build excitement about joining your company, consider sending a welcome package via mail. Whether that’s a mug with the company logo, a gift card for coffee, or a bunch of branded stationery—new hires will appreciate the gesture.

  • Get them set up: Besides sending gifts, make sure that your new team member is equipped with everything they need before their start date. Whether that’s a laptop, their new login information, or a phone, get them set up on time so they can get started right away.

  • Pair them with a mentor: A mentorship program is another way to ensure that your new team member feels welcomed. Mentors can answer all kinds of questions new hires may not feel comfortable asking their manager and are a great strategy to minimize impostor syndrome. 

According to our research, nearly eight out of 10 new hires reported that they experienced a sense of self-doubt related to their work accomplishments in 2020. Having a designated person to chat with and turn to for questions can increase the confidence a new member is experiencing during the first few months on the job. Mentors can also function as guides when it comes to understanding the company’s culture.

Create an inclusive onboarding experience

3. Build a strong company culture

Organizational culture is made up of your business goals, company values, people, and people touchpoints. A strong company culture allows you to build team-oriented practices, reduce friction between team members, ensure an inclusive workspace, and connect everything you do back to your company’s mission. By defining common goals and sharing a clear vision statement, you’ll effectively fuel business results and the health of your organization.

Recent studies show that despite an increasing number of teams working remotely during the pandemic, company culture remains an important factor in whether or not someone applies for the job. In fact, 86% reported that company culture is a somewhat to very important factor in their decision.

A strong company culture can be felt by your team but also shows through the work they deliver and in the way your organization is viewed from the outside. Potential candidates will check your social media, job review sites, and the information on your website to get a sense of your company culture. If you’re currently hiring, make sure that these channels reflect the culture you’ve created!

Read: How to continue building inclusive communities when you’re remote

4. Define work processes clearly

As part of your onboarding process (or transition into a remote company), you should define processes clearly. Working from home gives your teammates freedom they likely won’t experience in an office setting. While that freedom is great and part of the reason your team works remotely, the lack of face-to-face interaction can also create misunderstandings and miscommunication.

There are several areas where work processes and rules should be clearly established. For example, since 44% of remote workers do not find it necessary to get dressed up for a video call, you may want to set up a certain etiquette for online meetings. 

To nip miscommunication and lost conversations in the bud, use a communication plan to clearly define which channels to use for what kind of communication. Slack is great for quick check-ins or private conversations but project-specific questions are probably better communicated in a shared document or software.

According to the 2021 Anatomy of Work Index, 60% of a person’s time at work is spent on work about work (e.g., communication about work, searching for information, switching between apps, etc.). All that time spent on manual, duplicative tasks instead of skilled work can negatively impact your team’s performance. Defining work processes clearly can minimize the amount of work about work your team has to deal with. 

Read: How to create a pyramid of clarity with Goals in Asana

5. Communicate effectively

We’ve all heard of the magic of over-communication. While it’s great to always make sure everybody knows what’s going on, it can also be tiring. Rather than over-communicating, focus on communicating effectively. 

Ask yourself if it’s necessary to provide feedback on something or if you can trust the person responsible to handle it without your input. Consider whether or not attending a meeting will benefit you and the other attendees or if you can just read through the notes afterward. And most importantly: Always be sure that the value you’re adding to a project outweighs the other value you could be providing with your time. 

When your input or attendance is asked for, you can communicate effectively by:

  • Cutting to the chase. Give feedback lovingly but bluntly. Always lead with the assumption that everyone on your team is giving their best. When something doesn’t meet your expectations or the project’s standards, give clear and constructive feedback so they know how to improve their work.

  • Looping in relevant team members only. If Ray from IT isn’t going to be able to help you with solving your issue, don’t contribute to his already overflowing inbox.

  • Providing dates. Make sure every task or project has an associated date to avoid getting stuck in a follow-up loop.

  • Sending agendas. Meetings are way more efficient and fun when there’s an agenda to follow. It allows your team members to understand what will be covered and how long the meeting will take. To get started, try our meeting agenda template.

Don’t underestimate the lack of visual cues and body language virtual teams deal with. Connect with your teammates on a regular basis to ensure that everyone feels like part of the team and misunderstanding can be avoided.

Read: Managing distributed teams: 3 tips for practicing inclusive communication

6. Connect with your team members

You may not have an office space where you can come together in person, but you can still have virtual meetings to connect with each other. Regular 1:1 meetings, virtual coffee breaks, and happy hours will help your team cope with any virtual isolation.

We still need human connection. It’s more important than ever to find ways to connect with customers and one another—even if it’s just via video, Asana, or Slack.

You don’t have to reduce those personal interactions to fun calls. Make time for casual conversations at the beginning of a meeting just like you would in the office. Five minutes of chatting about weekend plans, your child’s soccer game, or your dog’s first time at the groomer will help you connect with your team on a personal level and create a warm and nurturing work environment.

Team building games are another great way to get your whole team engaged. Whether it’s a quick icebreaker at the beginning of a video conference, a monthly trivia night, or a company-paid in-person workshop—it’s the small personal exchanges and team bonding opportunities that make up for the lack of face-to-face interaction on a daily basis.

Read: Managing distributed teams: 3 ways to build a tight-knit team across time zones

7. Motivate your virtual team

Ideally, your virtual team consists of people that are great at keeping themselves accountable and motivated. However, even the most self-sufficient team member needs encouragement every once in a while. 

To keep your virtual team engaged and motivated, you need to give them a sense of purpose. Your team will feel much more connected to the project and the organization when they’re familiar with your company’s mission. They’ll also need opportunities for growth and learning to feel like they’re advancing in their career. 

Celebrate birthdays, work anniversaries, and important milestones to let your team know that you appreciate them and their work. Create opportunities for teammates to appreciate each other with small gifts or get shoutouts by their manager to boost confidence. All of these things can contribute to your team’s happiness and impact their performance.

Read: Every day is Employee Appreciation Day: How we show gratitude at Asana

8. Be mindful of time zones

Bringing your team together for projects, video calls, and virtual happy hours is great but be mindful of where your remote team members are located. If you have team members across different time zones, figure out what the best time is to connect.

Although remote teams are a lot more flexible, you can still provide your team with core work hours (e.g., 11am to 3pm). During those core work hours, everyone should be online and available to their teammates (apart from their lunch break). Studies show that 74% of workers believe that the concept of core hours helps remote teams.

To minimize friction between teammates, don’t schedule meetings before everybody’s core work hours have begun or after they’re over. Ideally, nobody should have to wake up extra early or stay late if there are better times during the day to connect. Being mindful of everyone’s work schedule will show your team that you value their time and allow them to have a healthy work-life balance.

This can become especially challenging with global  teams. At Asana, we do our best to make everyone feel included by scheduling rotating recurring meetings. For example, if the entire team meets once a week, we’ll switch meeting times every couple of weeks between morning in the US and afternoon in the US. This allows  team members based in Europe to join one week while the APAC team members can watch the recorded meeting on their own time and vice versa. 

At the end of the day, what counts is that you do your best to find a meeting routine that works for your team. You could even consider a weekly meeting-free day to give your team a break from having to work around calls and an opportunity for heads-down time without interruptions.

9. Utilize tools for remote work

If you don’t provide your team with the tools they need to communicate and work together effectively, your virtual team has no chance of succeeding. In a fast-paced world, sending documents back and forth via email won’t cut it. Take advantage of interactive platforms and software like Google docs or Asana that were designed with virtual team collaboration in mind.

Try Asana for remote teams

10. Organize face-to-face meetings

Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of face-to-face meetings. If possible, try to bring your team together for in-person events on a regular basis. If your teammates are all located within close proximity, this may be possible every week or once a month. If your team is distributed across different states, countries, and time zones, you can offer local meetups for smaller groups or get everyone together for a bigger event (e.g., summer meet-up, holiday party, or other company event).

While bringing your team together in person can be expensive and time consuming, at least one in-person event per year can do wonders for your team. Getting together in person can build trust, strengthen the relationships between teammates, and increase team engagement.

Benefits and challenges of virtual teams

Virtual teams allow organizations to disperse their hiring efforts and find the best candidates from a large talent pool. However, because team members aren’t sharing an office space, there are a number of challenges that can arise with virtual teams.

But with the right management and a positive mindset, leaders can turn the challenges of working with a virtual team into opportunities. 

Benefits and challenges of virtual teams

Pro: Your team is more flexible

One of the biggest perks of virtual teams is the flexibility that comes with working from home. Unless your team holds a lot of video conferences, they may be able to avoid putting on professional clothes and get to enjoy working in sweatpants and a comfy shirt.

Your team is also more flexible when it comes to creating their own work schedules. They can get up early and get work out of the way before their kids come home from school or work late at night if that’s their most productive time of day. 

Your team can work from their kitchen, go to a cafe, or meet up with other remote workers in a communal space. They may even have the opportunity to move to their dream city. The possibilities are endless.

Con: Homes become offices

While some of your teammates may enjoy the ability to start their day by answering emails from bed, it can also be a challenge to work from home. Besides the isolation your team may encounter without having teammates around, some may also experience a higher level of distractions in their own homes. 

There are the dirty dishes in the sink, the cat that keeps walking over the keyboard, the kid that’s home from school and needs lunch right away, all these factors can make working from home a challenge. When there is no office space to escape to, these can be difficult to manage for some of your teammates.

Keep in mind that not everyone has the luxury of a separate room in their home that can function as their office space. Unplugging at the end of the day can be a struggle for virtual teams, especially if their work space collides with their living space. 

How to work from home: 24 tips to boost your productivity

Pro: You’re saving time and money

The time your team saves by not commuting to the office every day can be spent with their families and friends, cultivating hobbies, and recharging from work. 

Not having an office space also saves your company money. Your organization no longer needs to pay for an office space or provide parking or commuting stipends for team members.

Con: You’ll have to work around different time zones

In a geographically dispersed team, your teammates could be located anywhere. Communication and collaboration issues can arise when you’re not cognizant of the different time zones and work schedules of your teammates.

If you aren’t approaching virtual team communication with intention, misunderstandings can complicate projects and day-to-day business. Make sure to give clear directions and to use a tool that keeps everyone connected and on the same page about your projects.

Read: 12 tips to effective communication in the workplace

Prioritize communication and collaboration

Whether you’re managing a virtual or a traditional team, focus on clear communication, empathize with your teammates, and lead by example to promote a healthy work environment.

Never underestimate the positive impact the right work software can have on your virtual team. Take advantage of our Asana templates to track processes, share meeting agendas, and conveniently collaborate with your team so you’ll never miss a deadline.

Try Asana for remote teams

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