How to Work with a Virtual Team

Published: December 17, 2017

When you first join a virtual work team, there are quite a few adjustments to make. No longer are you commuting to a shared working environment where you see your colleagues on a daily basis. Instead, you are probably working independently, perhaps thousands of miles from your other teammates. (And let’s be real— you’re very possibly working in your pajamas. Or at least in your sweatpants.)

You communicate through a lot of different methods, but a face-to-face sit-down with anyone you work with happens rarely, if ever. Whether your virtual team is made up of a handful of people in one city or hundreds of people around the globe, you have to adjust to a completely different approach to work when you work remotely.

The same goes for management. There are plenty of overlapping principles between traditional management and virtual management, but there are significant differences, too. Just as there are best practices for managing any other type of work team, virtual team managers can strategize ways to keep their employees happy, content, and challenged.

They can improve communication between team members at all levels of the organization, coordinate training opportunities, facilitate team building exercises, and foster an enthusiastic, productive environment.

Inbound Back Office has been working as a virtual team since 2011. In that time, we have learned a lot about what works well, as well as the tactics that DON’T work so well. (Those are stories for another day.) Here’s a rundown of our recommendations for working with a virtual team.

Tip #1: Hire the Right People

This might sound like a no-brainer, but it’s there’s more to it than you might think. Someone with a killer resume might be a terrible choice for a virtual work team. Sure, this person might have the educational qualifications and work experience in the field, but are they capable of working independently? Do they consistently and quickly reply to communication items you send, whether it’s through email, a company app, a text message, or whatever else your team might use? Are they capable of taking constructive criticism and applying it to their work?

Consider what you’re looking for in a new virtual hire and make sure that your application and interview process works as a mechanism for evaluating those skills. The hiring process should help you determine whether the applicant can respond effectively to instructions that aren’t given face-to-face.

Tip #2: Solidify Your Onboarding Process

Your prospective employees should get a taste of the company’s culture as they go through the hiring process, but the onboarding process is where they go from having a general idea of how things are going to work to a strong understanding of the processes you have in place. Onboarding should introduce them to each element of the company’s communication strategy, as well as the systems needed for completing their work on time and through the correct channels.

Be straightforward about your expectations, for their work and for your communication. If they don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s tough to ding them if they’re not living up to your standards. Remember, cover everything thoroughly, and be consistent. If your team starts to compare notes and finds that you’re holding them to different standards, you could be in big trouble.

Tip #3: Train Via Screencast

Screencasting, sometimes called video screen capturing, is a useful tool for training new hires. It’s also useful for introducing new technology to people who have been in the company for ages. When you create a screencast, you use software that records everything that you do on your computer into video format. So, if you move your mouse, the person who later views the video will see the cursor move across the page and select an icon.

You can add narration, highlighting, drawings, and just about anything you can think of to help show viewers what it is you’re doing on your computer. It’s a great tool for employees who learn well by watching something, not just listening to an explanation of it. Best of all, it’s a good way to build a connection with your team. They get a feel for your personality and you can share the information you want them to have in a fun and interactive manner.

Tip #4: Match the Tools to Your Tech Needs

Every virtual team has different needs when it comes to completing work, but one thing is certain: you have to have the right technology, and everyone has to be on the same page. Consider a virtual team that is responsible for writing online content. Imagine the mess that you would be managing if Team Member A created everything in Microsoft Word, Team Member B used Open Office, Team Member C used Google Docs, and Team Member D used Pages on their Mac.

The time you would waste on sharing files, solving file conversion issues, communicating about how to track changes, and checking to see if things look the same in each person’s word processing program would be a nightmare. It is vitally important for a decision to be made about each aspect of the team’s technology use, and for everyone to get on board. At Inbound Back Office, we use Slack for text-based communication, Google Docs for content creation, Zoom for audio and video communication, and Gmail for our email. Take the time to figure out which software is right for your team (and your budget) and then be consistent in your integration of that technology.

Tip #5: Try a Video Meeting

One technology option we have found useful at Inbound Back Office is the video meeting. Video conferencing allows us to create a more familiar environment and it offers a quick and easy way for us to get to know other members of the team as more than just a profile picture.

Sure, not every employee loves it— after all, one of the main advantages of working from home is being able to rock your favorite pajamas at your desk!— but it is undeniably a team-building exercise. It doesn’t work to have every meeting take place via video (our team consists of more than 20 members, so a video meeting could be a visual nightmare!), but it certainly makes sense to have the occasional video chat between colleagues throughout any given time period.

Tip #6: Schedule Regular Check-Ins

These check-ins are a great use of a video chatting service, such as Zoom or Skype or Google Hangouts. Team members feel a stronger sense of inclusion when their manager takes the time to meet with them, even if the conversations are pretty short.

This is your opportunity to measure how things are going, how satisfied the person is with their work experience, what questions they might have, etc. You don’t have the opportunity to observe someone as they go through their day when you’re managing a virtual team, so these regular check-ins allow you to communicate in a more personal way. And again, it’s another opportunity to connect with your team. When you make time to have a regular conversation with each member of your staff, you’re showing them that you value their work and their input.

Tip #7: Create a virtual water cooler

The metaphorical “water cooler” is a vital part of any healthy workplace. Employees need a place to talk, share stories from the day, ask questions, get informal feedback, and get to know each other. This is one of the hardest things for a virtual team to create, especially if many team members work independently.

Creating a virtual water cooler is a great strategy for giving your team the chance to bond. We use Slack, a chat-based collaborative app that can be accessed on a mobile device or computer. Slack can divide discussions into multiple channels, which are basically group discussion threads. (Think old-school AOL Instant Messenger.) Putting team members in the general discussion thread as well as specialized, task-based threads can be a great mechanism for improving communication, both work-related and more casual. Our Random thread can range from talk about weekend plans, online shopping, silly selfies, and more. It’s a fun way to engage with the team.

Tip #8: Choose Your Project Management Tool

You have a lot of decisions to make when it comes to choosing a task management system. Is a free tool going to meet your needs? How many people need to be accessing information within the system? How much automation do you need? Will you be syncing your PM tool with other apps and software? Be sure to pick the project management tool that is appropriate for you and your team now, but also scalable to accommodate your future growth.

Or, if you’re working with clients who are utilizing project management tools, consider adopting the one that’s most frequently used by your clients. This will help you and your team get a handle on the ins and outs of the tool before they’re working with the client.

Tip #9: Above All Else, Be Accessible

Virtual team managers can make a huge difference in the day-to-day experiences of their workers by maintaining an environment of accessibility. You should make it a habit to be visible to the members of your team from onboarding forward.

Make sure they interact with you and see you interacting with others, and don’t forget to set up those important check-ins with everybody. Reply quickly to concerns and questions, even if your reply needs to be something along the lines of, “I will get to this as soon as I can.” Your accessibility sets the tone for the rest of the group! If you’re not readily available to each member of your team, feelings of isolation can turn into indifference toward their job, and it could be challenging to salvage the relationship.

Virtual workspaces are an exciting development for employees and management alike. The unique challenges that these teams face can be met with attention to detail and careful thinking, as well as paying attention to what is working for companies who have successfully overcome the challenges related to working remotely— like Inbound Back Office. We’re excited for you to embark on this journey, and we’re optimistic that you can turn your virtual team into a rewarding and pleasant place to be.