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Five Simple Secrets for Running Virtual Teams
I work for a cool company that got rid of its NYC office the year I joined. From that moment forward, everybody in the company of a couple…
I work for a cool company that got rid of its NYC office the year I joined. From that moment forward, everybody in the company of a couple dozen people worked from home. Not just in the US, but in Australia and South America as well as Europe. How we have managed to stay strong and focused as an organization took a bit of experimentation, but we think we’ve found a formula that works. I’m now entering my 10th year. Here’s what we learned.
Ironically, the first step to success in running a strong virtual team is done face to face. You must have a company-wide function. We call it an IRL (for In Real Life). At an IRL you establish social connections face to face. If you don’t do this at least once a year, your virtual team can collapse or just become abstracted. In other words, you need to establish leadership and camaraderie in person, just like every other business. Every IRL I attend, I learn something new about people I’ve known for years. There’s something, dare I say it, magical about physical companionship. Even something as simple as seeing how somebody walks is valuable in filling out a depth of empathy. After all empathy is the key to wanting to make your team work well.
Secondly, you need to settle on standard collaboration tools. Nothing can undermine a virtual team like using WeChat for three months then changing to Slack, then changing to something else. Of course you need to learn by trying alternatives, but sooner or later the standard needs to get written in stone. Counterintuitively, you need to pay more attention to the downsides of such a tool than the advantages. What we have learned is that it’s a great deal more important for virtual teams to like using the collaborative tools. If five people say an application is ‘meh’, that’s better than three loving it and two hating it. When you run a virtual team there is not likely to be a sneakernet alternative. If employees don’t like it, the work won’t get done. Or it will get done in a silo. I’ll review the tools we have decided and our evolutions in another post.
Thirdly, you will want to have regular Town Hall meetings. These are a two or three hour meeting once a month where employees are invited to present and leadership gives detailed updates on the state of the company. Also some fraction of that meeting needs to be completely personal. What’s new in your life, etc. Basic kinds of social media questions are perfect. “Name 3 things about yourself that almost nobody knows.” Our Town Halls are run at a leisurely pace. It is more important that we spend the time together than rush through the agenda. As we have become used to Town Halls, people are more willing to speak up in front of the whole company even on controversial subjects. In this regard, bad news is good news because we don’t become passive-aggressive in our communications.
Fourthly, you need to have weekly standups / status meetings where the progress of projects and all other to-dos are aired in the departments. Take 90 minutes and get into the weeds. Have a Done / Not Done pass. No excuses or explanations, just say the task and whether or not it was done. Next pass you talk about your week. Third pass you talk about what’s on the next week’s agenda and the priorities. Finally you take issues that are outstanding and you setup sessions to deal with them. Every Friday is judgment day. Prepare for it, have no excuses.
Finally, you must have a knowledgebase. No matter how well you communicate immediately and on regular schedules, there needs to be a place where all of the ‘been there, learned that’ gets recorded. I think Confluence is both a good and a bad tool, but it is the very least you should do. Runbooks, policies and procedures, onboarding notes, formal communications. There is really no end to the kinds of documents that should be easily available to your teams. Remember that TL;DR is the enemy. These should be as comprehensive and complete as is possible. But also remember that things should be easy to find. Don’t bury things deep in hierarchies. Ironcially the search function on your knowledgebase may not work as well as those on the internet.
These channels of collaboration allow us to communicate in different contexts. Over time, we learned where to prioritize and the place to put information so that organization becomes more clear. Sometimes a single post is enough. Sometimes things should be broadcast, communicated through multiple channels and followed up as well. With these fundamentals you should be well on your way — but remember they will only work as your team agrees to use them, and of course different members of the team will their own styles. Stiil, you must insist on this kind of conformity. If people are still sending emails and you have decided on Slack, copy and paste the email into Slack until they get the message. Iterate through the process and gently remind people to keep doing it. Your virtual team will feel much more responsive and at home.