10 Ways to Improve Virtual Collaboration

Published February 2, 2016 by Genevieve Conti

When the content manager for SEO agency SimpleTiger asked to go to Thailand for a month, the answer was pretty simple: as long as you have Internet access.

“He told us he couldn’t fathom having a job directly out of college that had that kind of freedom,” says Sean Smith, partner and co-founder of SimpleTiger. “It did a ton for him.”

Benefits like that are a big reason why more organizations are embracing remote work. Employees get more freedom and more control over their work environment and that, not surprisingly, leads to happier teams.

Of course, distributed teams come with their own set of challenges, including how to collaborate with co-workers who are thousands of miles away.

Good collaboration takes work regardless of whether you’re in the same room or spread across time zones. For virtual teams, the principles stay the same, but the approaches are a little different.

If you’re looking to improve remote collaboration, here are 10 things to consider:

1. Hire the right people.

The first step toward a highly collaborative remote team is to hire people who share your values, who can thrive in a remote setting and who have a variety of perspectives.

Remote work isn’t for everyone. Before bringing someone on, make sure they can handle a remote work environment. Many organizations hire full-time employees after working with them as freelancers or contractors. This works well because the organization already has a sense of what the person values, if they can work remotely and how they fit into the culture.

Hiring people with a variety of different perspectives and backgrounds is important for collaboration, too. On a recent episode of podcast Reply All, researcher Scott E. Page uses ketchup to explain how diverse perspectives result in better outcomes:

“Now it turns out, if you're British or African American from the South, not as a rule, but generally speaking, you're likely to keep your ketchup in the cupboard. If you're not British or you're not African American from the South, you tend to keep your ketchup in the fridge ... Suppose you run out of ketchup. If you're out of ketchup and you're a ketchup-in-the fridge person, what are you gonna use? You might use mayonnaise, you might use mustard, because those are the things you think about as next to ketchup. If, alternatively, you're a ketchup-in-the-cupboard person and you run out of ketchup, what's next to the ketchup in the cupboard? Malt vinegar.”

The more diverse the backgrounds, the more associations you get, and the more paths there are toward solving a hard problem.

2. Build team trust.

rocks stacked on top of one another

Trust is the foundation for any good team, and it’s especially important for distributed teams.

“Mistrust is usually the symptom of a communication problem,” says Brie Reynolds, director of online content for Remote.co, a resource for companies with distributed teams. “When people start to feel like they aren't in the loop, or that they aren't receiving responses from key people, or that they're just uncertain about what's happening within the company, communication is typically to blame.”

Make an effort to engage regularly with team members, whether through weekly meetings, daily stand-ups or proactively reaching out for conversations.

Creating a culture without blame can also go a long way to build trust. Smith says emphasizing this allows SimpleTiger's team to have important conversations without finger-pointing.

“We always try to improve systems rather than calling out shortcomings in people,” he says. “That creates a level of trust and removes any animosity.”

3. Create virtual water coolers.

Provide ways for your team to have fun, get to know each other and connect about non-work-related things.

“Our HR director organizers regular intra-team coffee talks where random members of teams that don't normally interact get together for some fun, casual chit chat,” says Reynolds. “We also do trivia nights once a month, host brown bag discussions on lots of random topics, and have ‘groups’ on our message board for pet lovers, book lovers, travel lovers, cooking lovers, etc.”

The TED tech team started a tradition of wearing silly hats during launches.

And Zapier created Conspiracy Santa, a Secret Santa-inspired game that makes gift-giving more fun, personal and collaborative.

When you create a sense of community, people feel more comfortable reaching out to others and are more likely to share knowledge.

4. Set expectations for virtual meetings.

Whether you’re running a retrospective or a client meeting, set some basic expectations or rules for virtual team meetings, whether they’re related to logistics (using headphones during videoconferences to avoid ambient noise) or meeting content (have an agenda for every meeting).

“Our rule: We always plan for video,” writes the TED tech team. “This allows us to see everyone and to screen share presentations and comps. Also, if a few team members are together in one meeting room and others are remote, it is the meeting organizer’s job to normalize the experience for everyone.”

At SimpleTiger, Smith says, the expectation for their weekly team calls is to focus on removing obstacles to productivity and not to get off track or into the weeds. “If there’s anything that starts becoming a longer discussion, we schedule a time to talk about it later and move on,” he says.“The expectation is to set times to talk about any extensive problems that come up and keep our focus on unclogging tasks.”

5. Have a purpose for every tool and process.

There is no shortage of great tools a virtual team can add to their arsenal, but if your tools and processes don’t have a clear purpose or meet a real need, you run the risk of wasting time with unproductive habits.

iDoneThis wrote about their experience with this on their blog.

They had started holding weekly Google Hangouts for regular team check-ins because they knew face-to-face communication was important for virtual teams. But the Hangouts were really unfocused, and team members just ended up rehashing what had already been captured in iDoneThis.

“Instead, we moved to frame our weekly calls as a Friday ‘Show and Tell’. The purpose and protocol is clear — each person spends a few minutes demonstrating some work that they’re proud of or sharing something noteworthy about the week. It’s an opportunity to celebrate our wins, see visuals and demos of progress, and shift mental gears into a more proactive mode so that everyone has something to show every week.”

6. Manage time zones.

Teams spread over continents have to think carefully about how they manage work across time zones to avoid creating gaps or isolating team members.

“Time zones are as much a part of our reality as gravity or taxes,” said Erran Carmel, professor at American University, in a TEDx talk. Carmel says there are two facts we can’t escape: people still need (nearly) real-time interaction to coordinate, and people need sleep (and typically want to sleep at night).

Have a system for knowing who is available when, and take advantage of the many tools available to manage time zone differences.

7. Create knowledge spaces.

man-typing-coffee-shop

Streamline and centralize information make sure everyone on your team is on the same page.

Make sure people can easily find important information, reuse it and adjust it as processes and systems change and improve.

Creating knowledge spaces where team members (especially new team members) can go for technical and procedural information will limit miscommunication and redundancies, and it’ll allow everyone on the team operate from the same organizational knowledge.

8. Over-communicate.

Clear communication happens when the intended meaning and the interpreted meaning match up as closely as possible.

“If you have 5 people talking together, they’re likely gonna walk away with five subtly different ideas of what just happened,” says Casey Cobb, partner and co-founder at Project Ricochet, an open source website development agency. “It often doesn’t become really apparent until someone makes a mistake. With distributed teams, that’s going to happen much more frequently.”

Cobb and his partner and co-founder encourage team members to over-communicate. “When you think you’re communicating well enough, go further,” he says. “Talk until you feel like you’re being ridiculous.”

One of the ways they get at this is by having weekly, 30-minute one-on-ones for each team member and their manager.

“One-on-ones helps us identify problems very early on,” Cobb says. “When you let things go, weeds turn into trees.”

One-on-ones also help Project Ricochet avoid what’s called “accidental evil,” or individual behavior that seems innocuous but that can have unintentionally negative consequences for others.

Rather than jump to conclusions about someone being intentionally malicious, the Project Ricochet team knows to approach situations from a process standpoint rather than pointing fingers. Framing accidental evil this way removes personal blame and puts the focus on creating a better, leaner organization.

Agile retrospectives, with their blameless nature, are one great way to catch accidental evil and address it before it snowballs into a bigger problem. They keep teams focused on improving systems and processes rather than pinning issues on a specific person.

9. Meet IRL.

No tool can completely replace being together in the same room, especially as virtual teams grow.

Whether they meet once a year or more often, many remote or distributed teams will say meeting in person is a key ingredient to success and well worth the investment.

Meeting in person is also another great way to build team trust and allow people to get to know one another as human beings.

“It’s important to see people at least once because you can see their facial expressions and get a little more insight about them,” says Cobb, whose team meets at DrupalCon each year. “It’s a very expensive event, but it’s something that is hard to quantify. It’s so imperative.”

10. Never say “done.”

There isn’t going to be a point where you wipe the dust from your hands and admire your 100-percent-perfect plan for virtual collaboration.

It’s a process, not an event.

“In Agile fashion, organizations should be open to change and ask themselves what’s working and what’s not working, and aim to iterate and improve over time,” writes Tomás Gutiérrez Meoz, partner at Scalable Path. “You are probably not going to get everything right the first time around, but it’s possible to improve over time.”

Spot breakdowns in communication using Agile retrospectives, which give teams the power to make positive changes, collaborate more effectively and be more productive.

Distributed teams, like all teams, change and grow, and there’s always room to improve. But with so many benefits to remote work, it's definitely worth the effort.

Struggling with your distributed retrospectives? Try Retrium today.

SIGN UP TODAY!  YOUR FIRST 2 RETROSPECTIVES ARE FREE

Credits: Man Typing Whilst Doing Business At A Coffee Shop by Glenn3095 via Flickr, alone by Giorgio Montersino via Flickr, finding balance by woodleywonderworks via Flickr