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Nurturing virtual teams in the 21st century

By David Leonhardt

Thursday, January 07, 2016

In my days as Public Affairs Director at CAA Ontario, I coordinated a remote team. Not only was the team remote, but its attention was immensely diffuse. That is to say that each member of the team had a multitude of responsibilities, and my team was only a small item on their list of priorities.

That was before the Internet ruled our lives, before most companies even had websites.

Not much has changed. I coordinate a number of teams and I participate in several others. Some are ongoing, some are very short-lived and project-specific. What I and all the other members of the team share in common is that we are…can you guess?

We are a virtual team, so we work remotely.

We all work on a number of teams, as well as having a multitude of our own projects.


Short-term projects are all about quickly building a team, getting the job done and buying everyone a round of virtual drinks in celebration (BYOB in real life).

Long-term projects require a lot more effort on the team-building side of things. The multitude of distractions within an organization and from the outside can pose a serious threat to the effectiveness of a team. Furthermore, a long term project goes through many stages, and usually there are many elements that cannot be predicted or controlled for at the outset. Times change. The environment changes. The organization changes. Even team members might change.

Here are five strategies to keep your team performing for the long haul so that the project that seemed so promising at the outset doesn’t end up in a heap of rubble, with everybody scratching their heads and wondering what went wrong.

Keep informed

The most important thing is to keep everybody informed. All team members should know certain things:

  • Any changes to the project.
  • Any updates from other team members, when milestones are met.
  • Any problems other team members are facing.
  • Any changes in the environment or from outside influences.
  • Anything else that could affect the progress of the project or any individual team member’s tasks.
There are several ways to keep people informed, depending on the size and nature of the team. Ah, that is the one thing that has changed since my days at CAA Ontario – the tools!

A group email is not a bad way to share information, especially if the team is small and has one clear leader. The huge weakness of group email is that it makes discussion difficult, so this is better for scheduling meetings, integrating email into a scheduling program and sending out documents FYI only.

There are project collaboration platforms, as well. I have used both BaseCamp and Trello, and I have found both of them work well. They allow you to divide a project into its component parts and track progress separately on each component. Different team members can be assigned to different parts of a project, which means also that if there are some parts that have sensitive information, you can give access to only those who need to know.

For keeping data up to date, I have been using Zoho’s Excel-like spreadsheet. Google Docs also has something similar. Rather than emailing Word, Excel and PDF documents, you can convert them to post them online for all to view and for all to edit.


More sophisticated teams, such as permanent teams of employees, might benefit from a full-scale virtual office, such as WorkFlow Max, where they can access leads, sales, invoicing as well as documents on an ongoing basis.

Huge files, such as videos and large reports, can be uploaded to DropBox for team members to download.

Keep in touch

Being informed is one thing, discussion is another. Keeping informed is one-way communication, even if the information is being input from various sources. To discuss the pros and cons or to flesh out ideas, a real discussion is needed.

Discussion is also the place where team members can let their hair down a little and actually feel like they are members of a team. This might come naturally to people in Cubicle City who bump into each other in the lunchroom and in the hallways, but for a virtual team, discussion is their only direct contact.

If the team is large and the project is complex, you might want to schedule regular meetings. As Wade Foster puts it: “In every job I ever had (even co-located ones), there wasn’t enough feedback between me and my supervisor. So at Zapier, I setup a recurring monthly event with each team member where we both jump on Skype or Google Hangout to chat about four things: what’s one thing you’re excited about, what’s one thing you’re worried about, what’s one thing I can do better to help you with your job, and what’s one thing you can do better to improve at your job.”

However, most people don’t like meetings. They use up a lot of time and disrupt everybody’s schedule. Furthermore, if your remote team is scattered around the globe, scheduling can be a pain in the neck. For my part, I simply do the math:meetings = yuck

Whether you opt for regular meetings or not, discussions can take place in group chats. Here are just a few ways to do this:

FaceBook Groups: These lack flexibility and FaceBook is notorious for changing rules and privacy, so it is not an option for serious business discussions. On the other hand, if part of your project involves mobilizing a large number of volunteers, FaceBook Groups are ideal for two reasons: it is relatively painless to manage large groups and almost everybody already has a FaceBook account (saves hours of explaining to non-tech-savvy folks how to set up).

Skype chat groups: This is what I mostly use. An ongoing team can have an ongoing Skype chat group. If you have a big project, you can break down the chat into different component-specific chat rooms. Just leave a message and when a team member across the globe wakes up, he will see it in the chat stream. And if you see value in going to voice or video, Skype is very flexible.

Video Chat: Speaking of video, I know of some people who use Google Hangouts and Blab to engage in group video collaborations. As with FaceBook, these might not be the best options for serious business discussions. And unlike Skype Chat rooms and FaceBook Groups, you have to align everybody’s schedule across time zones to make video work.

Keep on track

A widely dispersed team on a long-term project is a recipe for losing track. There are so many other distractions, The success of the project depends on everybody staying on track.

It’s OK to keep reminding people of their roles (Yes, people do tend to get fuzzy about those over time).

It’s OK to remind people of deadlines; some people won’t be able to complete or maybe even begin their tasks if others are late on theirs.

It’s OK to remind people of the main goal(s) of a project, because people tend to get bogged down in details and forget what they are really there for.

It’s OK to do all these things. And it is necessary. As Kevin Elkenberry says, “Teams often get lost in procedures, small problems or on any other sort of “rabbit trail”. Don’t lose track of the big picture. Remember the goals and purposes for the team and continue to bring yourself and the team back to those purposes. Keeping the big picture in view will smooth out many of the bumps in a team’s road and reduce the time and effort required to reach success.”

It’s important also to scout ahead for roadblocks that might trip up one team member or another and create a disastrous domino effect. It is equally important to fix little problems before they become big problems, and especially to focus on the problem rather than on the blame.

Keep ahead

As projects develop, keeping on track might not be enough. The track might change. Nothing remains constant. New opportunities might develop. Or new opportunities might simply become more apparent further down the road. The same goes for threats.

While the bulk of the brainstorming probably happened at the start of any long term or ongoing project, brainstorming along the way should not be overlooked. There are many brainstorming and mind mapping tools available to choose from. You don’t need tools to brainstorm, but they do help keep track of ideas, especially with a large team, and they make it easier to revisit and play with the ideas a month later.

Keep it chill

“Chill” would be my daughter’s word for it. In other words, be polite, make sure that people get along and respect everybody. So if you are reminding people of their roles, you don’t need to say, “Hey, that’s not your business. That’s Alana’s role.” Instead, you can say, “OK, great. I’ll ask Alana to take a look. I really need you to focus on such-and-such.”

It is also important to exercise patience. Some team members might take longer than others to “get it”. Remote communication is not always perfect, and especially as projects evolve, distance can make it harder to turn people in new directions. Patience is also helpful when it comes to respecting the various priorities beyond the team. However, patience should not mean permitting parts of a project to fall behind; hence the importance of keeping on track.

There are many benefits to building a remote team, including the wider choice of talent and possibly the cost savings from hiring offshore and not maintaining a costly office. But there are also many challenges of communication and coordination. If you follow these five broad strategies, you can enhance the upside without too costly a downside.

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About the Author:
David Leonhardt runs TGHM Writing Services, helping clients select the right words to move mountains. If you have mountains of potential clients to move, his team will be happy to help you.
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