Working Together Apart: Managing Virtual Teams

by Eric Wall April 30, 2016
April 30, 2016

The most famous violin maker of all time was Antonio Stradivari, who made violins, violas, and violincellos in a workshop in Cremona, Italy in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. In the hands of a virtuoso, a Stradivarius can make the most beautiful and sublime music. But what if you gave a Stradivarius to your nephew, who took up the violin four months ago and only practices when bribed by his mother? Well, the Stradivarius will likely make the same horrid screeching as the second-hand $ 100 violin your nephew usually plays. You’d be foolish to expect anything else.

Yet somehow, expectations change when the instrument changes. Take telecommuting policies, for example. Telecommuting offers great advantages in terms of increased productivity and saving money. However, it is an instrument that needs to be played properly to achieve desired results.

At Equivity, we are a team of all virtual employees who provide administrative and marketing services. We aspire to build a collaborative culture. We collaborate with our clients to help support their businesses. We also collaborate internally to help develop our own business and assist one another on client projects. The challenging part of maintaining a virtual organization is creating an environment that facilitates sharing knowledge and time and nurturing a sense of teamwork despite the fact that our virtual assistants don’t work in the same offices or even in the same cities.

Here are some techniques that we use to foster a culture of collaboration and sharing at Equivity:

  1. Putting a Face to the Name. Collaborative relationships are built on trust. One challenge for those of us who work virtually is to instill trust in our coworkers and colleagues when we’ve never met them face-to-face. One way to help build trust is to encourage people to put a face to the person writing an email or working on a project. A profile photo humanizes you to clients by presenting you as an individual, rather than a faceless employee of a company.[1] Our VAs all include their headshots in our custom signature blocks.
  2. Communication is Key. While there are ever-proliferating ways of communicating remotely, not all media are created equal. Email communications can be an efficient and effective way of conveying information, but they can often create misunderstandings and lead to conflict. Writing and replying to emails in a clear and concise manner is the easiest way to avoid miscommunications. The problem with email, as opposed to phone or in-person communication, is that it does not provide the emotion context to what we are saying. Face-to-face interactions provide us with plenty of context for determining emotion; facial expressions, volume of someone’s speech, and body language. Email, despite being quick and convenient, leaves us solely relying on content to establish someone’s emotional responses.[2] Being stressed while writing an email can show, and poorly written or terse messages might be misconstrued or send misleading signals to the recipient.[3] Therefore, we consciously think about the medium we use to convey information. For emotionally sensitive issues, a phone call (or video conference) is almost always best. It gives all participants the opportunity to convey their feelings (even if only implicitly), and it is most likely to facilitate conflict resolution. When the subject matter of a communication is not particularly sensitive, but there is a lot of information to convey, email is usually the way to go. For more conversational interactions or for simple coordination issues we often use text or IM.
  3. Availability and notice. Our virtual assistants take pride in their consistent availability to work autonomously. They set their own schedule for both working on client projects and making themselves available to coordinate with clients to take on new requests. We want to foster this sense of autonomy. It is this pride in being able to work independently that also fosters a sense of individual accountability amongst our virtual assistants. One of the ways in which we respect our virtual assistants’ discretion to set their own schedule is by coordinating meeting times, rather than just picking p the phone and calling immediately (unless the matter is truly urgent). At the same time, there is a mutual expectation that the virtual assistant will be responsible to the request and schedule a time that is appropriate given the importance of the matter to be discussed.
  4. Regularly scheduled status meetings. One danger of working remotely is isolation. If you work in an office, you have the ability to bounce problems off your coworkers and brainstorm solutions—even if this happens in a more casual context of blowing off steam over lunch or in a breakroom. Because this isn’t an option in a virtual work environment, weekly meetings become much more important. They carve out time for virtual assistants to discuss challenges and issues. We find that one-on-one meetings tend to be better. They ensure each virtual assistant has an opportunity to raise their own issues without worrying about how others in the audience will perceive them. Further, in a group setting, there is a risk that more vocal participants will monopolize the time while less vocal will go unheard.
  5. In-person get-togethers. When possible, we also try to organize in-person meetings. They provide a far richer context than email communications or phone calls and allow us to get to know the real person behind the computer. These meetings can consist of get-togethers when managers and team members are in the same cities, or casual lunches among colleagues.

While some assume that an organization’s culture is cultivated by enlightened management with a grand strategy, culture can neither be dictated nor planned. What management can do is to introduce practices that reflect their values and incentivize behavior consistent with those values.




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