Even in virtual reality, relationships do matter
Just like with personal relationships, nurturing work relationships can be a considerable work itself. Fortunately, we've got some handy guidelines to ensure you don't neglect even the tiniest aspect of the relationship with your virtual team members.
Breaking the ice and getting to know each other
You don't want to start talking about business right off the bat. Instead, you should have a crack at figuring out who your remotes are on a human level, what makes them tick… Asking them about their favorite food (the food topic never fails), hobbies or if they've ever worked in a remote team before are just a few of the many examples of what you could get curious about.
And repeating and paraphrasing answers to these questions proves you were listening… Who doesn't like to feel heard anyway?
Next, you might want to consider an open door policy of anytime meetings, that is, allowing your team members to contact you spontaneously via e-mail, text messages or cell phones.
Reinforcing the idea of a real, palpable team is crucial. You're all in the same boat – you win together, and you lose together. Bragging or finger pointing, therefore, are no-go zones, and team-wide encouragement should become a part of your daily routine. Also, it's never too early to start celebrating birthdays!
And most importantly, you need to discover what truly motivates your remotes. Identifying their goals is an efficient gateway to a deeper understanding and appreciation of who they are as people as well as employees and can be the bridge to a more productive relationship with your team.
How shall we communicate?
You've got the holy quadruplet of non-personal communication: E-mail, phone call, texting and virtual conference.
Good old e-mail is an excellent way to schedule meetings and send updates to a group of two or more people and should follow the five-sentence rule; if you can't write it in five sentences or less, pick up the phone.
Phone conversations allow time to ask questions and clarify things on the spot, hence no need for back and forth e-mails.
Texting is useful, too, just make sure your remotes have their phone at hand.
The most powerful tool for creating and reinforcing a sense of connection is, by all means, virtual conference and the only way to get input and participation from all of your team members at once.
When it comes to giving feedback, it's recommended to do it in-person, and in a remote environment, in-person means not over email. Skype, a virtual conference facility or the phone would be the way to go.
Lastly, considering time zones is a no-brainer. The golden middle way of alternating meeting times proves more fair than having one fixed time for all the countries involved.
Making sure everyone's rowing in the same direction
As Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said: “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”
In the same vein, virtual teams operate on a similar principle; sharing the same idea of what success looks like puts you that much closer to getting a taste of your desired success.
The most measurable part of identifying what success looks like is by setting targets, be it an on-time delivery or creating a returning customer, on both a project level and a year-end goals level.
You can think of setting targets as a result of collaboration – the first schedule a brainstorming meeting by utilizing the benefits of a virtual conference room, then hold a follow-up meeting to finalize everything, and after that you can create a so-called “prototype” of your success criteria, that is, some form of visuals that'll always remind everyone what you mutually agreed on.
It's worth noting that even set targets aren't set in stone. Let your remotes know they can modify and recreate them whenever necessary; the success criteria can grow with your team.
A nice side effect of collaborative efforts is that everyone owns the success of what it produces…
…and never falls short of expectations.
Everyone on the team should be on the same page regarding job responsibilities to avoid accidentally duplicating efforts, for instance. As you can imagine, no one on Earth likes to go through the horror show of the conflict that arises from unspoken expectations.
A top priority should be to confirm what each remote's schedule is; believe it or not, an 8-hour timeframe can take many forms. You can discuss this and other expectations openly and thoroughly by having a remote happy hour via the favorite virtual conference room and, if you feel like it, even create some artwork together; e.g., a laminated poster of the expectations you have solidified.
Setting norms is important, too
Ah, the communication response times protocol… Something especially important in a virtual environment. Whatever your protocol will be is totally up to you, but here's some guidance you might consider sharing with your team members: one hour response time for text messages when you're available and three hours when you aren't, for example. Urgent e-mails should be responded to within four hours, and informative ones can have a 24 hour response time tolerance. Automatic Replies feature can do miracles, too.
As for anything scheduled, be it phone calls or meetings, try applying the five-minute rule. In case you or any of your remotes are going to be more than five minutes late, that person should text someone on the team to let everybody know that they're running late.
Questionnaires, assessments and understanding your remotes' habits
First off, questionnaires. At the start of your working relationship, it's worth asking your remotes if they're well-equipped for working remotely at all. You could consider asking the following: What's the nearest airport and how long would it take you to get there? What technology do you own (desktops, laptops, iPads, a smartphone, printer, fax…)? Mac or PC? Your preferred phone number and e-mail address?
In case anything's missing, all the tech issues should be resolved in due time.
So, for instance, if any software requires a license, this is a perfect time to have your remote put a renewal reminder on their calendar; say, 30 days in advance of the expiration.
Or if your company is doing a computer refresh in mid-January and it's only October, ensure that your remote has an interim computer, or you can take advantage of the time when your remote is on vacation and have their laptop refreshed while they're away.
Second, if you want to get to know your remote on a deeper level, there's the enigmatic world of skill and personality assessments. The majority of them, such as Myers-Briggs or the Strength Deployment Inventory, can be done online. Don't forget to stay inclusive though – if you do it for one, do it for all; you don't want to stir up gossip and false assumptions.
It's advisable to have a third party perform the initial debrief with your remotes and once assessed and evaluated, you can give it a go and apply results to practice – a data-oriented employee can be assigned to the spreadsheet project, while your relationship-oriented remote can be assigned to a customer satisfaction inquiry. Growth opportunities through training and mentoring should be addressed as well. Let your remotes know you want them to become their best self.
And last but not least, be sure to find out whether your remote is an early bird or a night owl, if they need 4 coffee breaks an hour to keep functioning, once distracted, how long it takes them to refocus, etc.… A virtual conference room seems like an ideal setting for sharing and discussing habits, with all the members being present and actively participating.
If you need more tips on how to circumnavigate the exciting world of managing a virtual team, don't hesitate a second and turn to Distant job's blog for more related articles, or if you're in urgent need of a remote developer, you can just cut to the chase and give us a shout right here.