It’s 8 am. Your alarm buzzes.
You roll out of bed, perform your morning ablutions, and then sit down at your desk, ready to take Monday by the horns. Which you do, because you’re working from home, and not some crummy, cramped office which is full of distracting coworkers.
It’s 8 am. Your alarm buzzes.
You realize you were dreaming.
This rose-tinted view of remote work – and being part of a virtual team – was exactly that: A dream. 💭
Although working remotely can be wondrous, it isn’t always easy.
As members of virtual teams (like myself) will tell you, there are countless challenges and hurdles teams must tackle – from maintaining a healthy work-life balance to establishing a culture of asynchronous communication – before a virtual team can reap the rewards of increased employee productivity, lowered business costs (Cisco saved over $270 million a year!), and improved employee happiness.
Luckily for you, this blog post contains everything you need to help your virtual team not only excel but become excellent.
Read through the sections below to get a proper handle on all-things virtual teams:
- Virtual teams definition
- What makes strong, successful virtual teams?
- How top remote companies go about managing virtual teams
- Overcome virtual team challenges with Process Street!
Now, it’s time to wake up, smell the coffee, and learn exactly how to instill and sustain a masterful, virtual team!
Virtual teams definition
First thing’s first: What is a virtual team?
In layman’s terms, a virtual team (also known as a remote team, distributed team, or distributed workforce) is a group of employees who work digitally in lieu of traditional, physical office space.
The Corporate Finance Institute further explains:
“A virtual team, also known as a geographically dispersed team or a remote team, is a group of people who interact through electronic communications. Members of a virtual team are usually located in different geographical regions. Since communication is not in-person, trust and good communication are crucial to the success of a virtual team.” – The Corporate Finance Institute, What is a Virtual Team?
All signs point to virtual teams becoming the norm for many businesses as time goes on.
The research has shown that between 2005 and 2017, there was a (rather massive) 159% increase in remote work. From 2016 to 2017 alone, the number of those working remotely increased by 7.9%. To boot, FYI‘s Remote Work Report tells us that 91% of people said remote work is a great fit for them.
Considering that remote working and having fully-operational virtual teams yields a whole host of benefits – including reduced office costs (perhaps even none at all!), lower employee costs, increased productivity, and fewer unnecessary in-person meetings – the advantages of transforming your physical office into a digital one are clear.
To help facilitate virtual teams, digital tools – whether it’s text-based business apps such as Slack, or video conferencing programs like Zoom – are utilized. By using digital productivity, communication, and collaboration tools, the physical office becomes, well, obsolete.
After all, why have an office when members of a virtual team can work from their preferred location?
It’s a win-win situation.
But for a virtual team to become truly great, using state-of-the-art tools is only half of the equation. There need to be workplace-based behavior and culture changes, too.
“Productivity tools have caught up to the remote trend. Remote integrates seamlessly into our work lives. Thanks to the likes of Slack, Zoom, Google Hangouts, G Suite, Office 365, Evernote, our partner on the survey Miro, and the slew of other ever-expanding and new cloud collaboration tools.
What, exactly, are the changes leaders and managers of remote teams need to make?
Read on, for the next section will tell you everything you need to know about building a stellar virtual team from the inside-out.
What makes strong, successful virtual teams?
The success of a virtual team is dependant on five important behavioral factors.
Specifically, these are leadership, culture, autonomy, motivation, and communication. Not only are all five of these behavioral factors as important as each other, but they also all work in tandem.
Let’s take a look at them in closer detail.
Successful virtual team factor #1: Leadership
Great battles weren’t won without great leaders. And for leaders virtual teams, whose employees turn to them for guidelines, guidance, and counsel, solid leadership is particularly critical.
Virtual team leaders must remove any sense of ambiguity, so that employees know exactly what to do, when, how, and why. Without clear direction, employees can become confused, succumb to anxiety (more on anxiety later), and even carry out the wrong tasks entirely – which is a waste of your business’ time and money.
As if a virtual team leader didn’t have enough on their plate, a good virtual team leader must also facilitate team cohesion in new, alternative ways.
Without a traditional, physical office space, employees don’t have as much opportunity for off-the-cuff discussions that they’d otherwise have in an office, no matter if the conversation would’ve revolved around the big game last night or a hilarious meme that they just came across.
This kind of communication strengthens social ties among teammates, so the virtual team leader must bring their team together through alternative means.
Want specific, actionable tips on how to do it yourself? Check out our post 63 Team Building Activities That Your Team Won’t Roll Their Eyes At.
Successful virtual team factor #2: Culture
It’s not some hush-hush, underground secret that, with remote working, employees can find themselves anxious. In fact, let me tell you all about it…
It was early one morning when I decided to hit the ground running and do some great work, which I could later present to my colleague Ben Mulholland, who was onboarding and training me at the time.
“Look at me go! 😎” I thought, as I polished my very-first blog post up in WordPress.
But instead of running a plugin (which was a dead link-checker) in the edit view of WordPress rather than the public view, WordPress began to slow down. It messed with the HTML. I saw things moving against my will.
Suddenly, a “Process Street is down! 😱” message appeared in Slack.
Cut to me thinking “What’s going on?”, promptly followed by “What have I done?!“, which then led to other terrific thoughts, such as:
- Have I broken Process Street?
- Have I corrupted Process Street’s WordPress beyond recognition?
- Will I get a strongly-worded message from Ben?
- Will I get paid this month?
- Will I get fired?
- Oh god, will I get fired?!
Safe to say, anxiety-levels were at an all-time high – that was evident in the numerous voice calls I tried to initiate, and the various messages I sent in Slack.
Shortly after, Ben came on Slack. His first message to me was: “Hey man, don’t worry! Let me take a quick look and get back to you.”
I took a deep breath, realized maybe things weren’t as bad as I thought they were and waited for a response.
After mere minutes, he told me that I’d simply launched the plugin in the wrong WordPress view. No biggie. He also updated our internal blog post-pre-publish checklist, so that instructions were clearer regarding where to use the plugin.
After my heart-rate slowed down from what felt like 500 beats per minute to a healthy 100, I realized that Process Street’s workplace culture was a friendly, understanding one.
This, in turn, knocked all the anxieties I had about being a new, remote-based employee on the head: I knew that if I ever faced another issue, I could bring it up and be met with a calm, level-headed response.
Now I know I needn’t have been afraid or anxious in the first place, and due to our own positive workplace culture, we only want to help each other do the best work possible.
Successful virtual team factor #3: Communication
The above anecdote brings us onto the next point rather nicely: Communication.
Without a team sharing a desk or office space, there isn’t the opportunity to ask a question face-to-face, or quickly see if a coworker who doesn’t look particularly busy can double-check whatever you’re working on. Ergo: Communication takes more of a conscious effort when working as a virtual team.
This means two things:
- Communication has to be asynchronous.
- Communication isn’t enough. You need to overcommunicate.
If the term “asynchronous communication” is new to you, have no fear – it’s simple to understand.
Asynchronous communication is providing another person all the details they need to know right off the bat. This includes contextual information, and answers to any questions you think they might follow-up with.
Here’s an example of synchronous and asynchronous communication in action.
Person 1 👨: Hey
[1 hour later.]
Person 2 👩🦱: Hey, what’s up?
[5 minutes later.]
Person 1 👨: I’ve just designed our new website logo!
[1 hour later.]
Person 2 👩🦱: Cool, can I take a look?
[2 hours later.]
Person 1 👨: Yeah, it’s here: [logo link]
[The next day.]
Person 2 👩🦱: Ok. Is there anything I need to know about it?
[2 hours later.]
Person 1 👨: I’m not too sure about the use of green…
Person 1 👨: Hey Person 2! I’ve just designed our new website logo. I finished it earlier. You can find the link here: [logo link]. I’m thinking of substituting the green for blue – what do you think?
If you have any other thoughts or ideas, please let me know! I’m more than happy to work on iterations until everyone’s happy. 🙂
See how much easier it is for Person 2 to jump into the logo review with asynchronous communication?
From the get-go, the person on the receiving end is provided with information regarding when the design was finished, topics for discussion, and the location of the logo itself. This saves time, means employees can work more efficiently, and that virtual teams are on the same page.
Overcommunication – and asynchronous communication – are, ultimately, the best forms of communication.
Successful virtual team factor #4: Motivation
As somebody who’s part of a virtual team, I’m often asked “Don’t you find it hard to concentrate if you’re not in an office? I’d be so tempted to watch Netflix/play World of Warcraft/cuddle the cat/[insert other non-work activity here] if I worked from home.”
That’s not because I’m some super-human robot who’s immune to distraction and making mistakes (that should be obvious from my earlier anecdote) – it’s because I’m motivated by my team and team leaders to create as much quality work as I can.
And you can instill the same feeling for your virtual teammates, too.
Want to jumpstart your virtual team’s motivation? Here are three simple tips to get you going:
- Create a sense of purpose. 🚀
By letting your employees know the small and big-picture impact that their work is having – whether this is showing them metrics in quarterly performance appraisals or how a whole team is faring during an all-hands meeting – they’re far more likely to feel a sense of purpose. Feeling a sense of purpose will, in turn, help employees put their all into their work.
- Ensure you’re communicating with your team frequently. 🗣
Studies have shown that strong communication is one of the best ways to motivate teams. It may seem simplistic, but frequent contact – in addition to providing praise, tips, and guidance – makes remote employees feel involved and a part of something, thereby increasing motivation.
- Celebrate wins. 💪
With virtual teams, it’s easy for successes to go under the radar. However, by announcing employee wins in a Slack channel or during a Zoom meeting – like when a member of the sales team has helped a big-name company become a client – you’re not only motivating the employee in question, but also those around them.
Want more handy, motivation-boosting tips and tricks? We’ve got you covered – check out this blog post on work motivation.
Successful virtual team factor #5: Autonomy
By working in a virtual team, employees need to have some degree of autonomy, thereby also being responsible and accountable for what they do or do not do.
Although each person may be delegated a certain amount of tasks each sprint, it’s ultimately down to the individual to manage their time and complete the work itself.
Considering that, in a team, each person’s work (or lack thereof) impacts somebody else, multiple people, or the team as a whole, each virtual team member needs to stay on top of their workload, communicate with others frequently, and talk to somebody if they’re facing any issues.
Companies who are at the top of the game when it comes to managing virtual teams provide employees with a healthy balance between structure and autonomy.
Speaking of which, in the next section, I’ll show you how 3 remote companies – Process Street, Buffer, and Zapier – go about managing their (growing) virtual teams, and how it’s led to their continued success.
How top remote companies go about managing virtual teams
For the better.
Now, let’s take a look at how three remote companies with virtual teams are using this disruption to their advantage.
How Process Street manage their virtual team
Process Street (hey, that’s us!) has always been a fully remote company.
Ever since CEO Vinay Patankar launched the company with CTO Cameron McKay, remote job boards like AngelList have been used to recruit virtual team members all across the world. We now boast a company roster of over 40 employees, and have welcomed thousands of users to our nifty BPM software!
I mentioned Process Street’s remote team culture earlier, but it really is worth mentioning again; it’s one of the main reasons our virtual team is making tracks.
Take our remote team dinner that happened in September ’19.
After hitting a customer-based milestone, Vinay announced that each employee had the opportunity to treat themselves (and their family and friends) to a free dinner, courtesy of Process Street. Whoever uploaded the best meal picture to Slack would win a $100 Amazon voucher, plus the coveted status of being the winner.
Now, this may be the point where you think “What does having dinner have to do with virtual teams?”.
Because we are a virtual team – and based across over 20 timezones – we don’t have the opportunity to mingle as office-based companies do. But with initiatives like the remote team dinner, there’s the chance for non-work-based socializing, we gain additional insight into each others’ lives and personalities, and there’s increased group cohesion.
It was a huge success and we all had a lot of fun, despite being based in different countries, continents, and timezones.
Below you’ll be able to see my (silly) entry for the competition!
Fun initiatives aside, Process Street’s virtual team management primarily relies on the digital tools we use.
Slack is where all of our text-based communication takes place, Tettra is where important information is hosted, Zoom is what we use for remote meetings and voice calls, and the Process Street checklist app is used to store checklists for our recurring tasks.
We have a plethora of internal processes (specific to each department) that the virtual team can use and follow straight away. This ensures whatever task at hand is completed both properly and with precision, and should new employees join, it’s easy for them to start following our virtual teams’ workflows themselves.
All in all, it’s a mix of organizational leadership, culture, autonomy, motivation, and communication + digital tools that = a successful virtual team.
How Buffer manage their virtual team
If you haven’t used Buffer before, it’s a streamlined social media management platform that allows businesses to take control of all things social.
With more than 4 million registered users and over $10 million in annual recurring revenue (ARR), it’s safe to say their virtual team must be doing something right.
They started as a remote company, and although they had the opportunity to move to San Francisco – a city that’s now something of a tech-haven – CEO Joel Gascoigne opted to keep Buffer’s teams entirely virtual. In fact, the team at Buffer believes it’s crucial to either be 100% office-based or 100% virtual, and that a half-and-half team isn’t as effective.
As Hailley Griffis, the public relations manager at Buffer, suggests:
“We’d give the same advice we received when we were considering going full-time remote: either have everyone in an office or have everyone fully remote.
The reason for this is so that you don’t create an environment where some employees feel left out or where communication happens in person and not online so that remote employees aren’t a part of the conversation.” – Hailley Griffis, Remote Work at Buffer
But what, exactly, helped Buffer’s 100% virtual team to succeed and exceed – and achieve over 10 million dollars in ARR?
In an interview with remote jobs board remote.co, Griffis puts it down to communication:
“Communication is one of the biggest ones for us. One of our values is “Communicate with clarity” and it’s vital in having a successful relationship with remote colleagues. Clear communication leads to better understanding how everyone works and helps build more trust in our team. We also truly rely on tools like Slack, Zoom, Discourse, and email to make sure we can have the level of communication we want to.” – Hailley Griffis, Remote Work at Buffer
Conscious communication – that’s clear (asynchronous) communication – has been a major reason why Buffer’s virtual team triumphs.
To boot, they also maintain a healthy workplace culture: In addition to having a core set of values, Buffer ensures employees have at least 15 days off a year, plus Christmas, and any time they need to observe the holidays that are relevant to them. By doing this, Buffer is actively helping their employees to be happy and healthy, wherever in the world they’re located.
When it comes to virtual teams, Buffer is certainly setting a precedent for how to go about it properly!
How Zapier manage their virtual team
If you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, then maybe you haven’t heard of Zapier.
Simply put, Zapier is an integration tool that allows different pieces of business software to communicate with each other. By integrating software, you can create labor-saving, time-saving, and downright cool automations.
It’s also a workflow automation tool that we’ve written about extensively (plug: check out our Ultimate Guide to Business Process Automation with Zapier eBook!) and now couldn’t live without.
But enough about what Zapier is; let’s focus on how their virtual team of over 100 employees is remotely managed.
Like Process Street and Buffer, Zapier is another example of a fully-virtual team that started life remotely – it was only when the three co-founders attended Y Combinator that all the company’s employees were based in the same location. Apart from those 3 months, Zapier has been virtual all the way.
Over the years, Zapier’s virtual team has enabled the company to go from strength to strength. In fact, Zapier went from 0 users to over 600,000 in just three years.
- Team. 👥
The team at Zapier understands that not everyone is cut out for remote work – some might find it lonely, anxiety-inducing, or just hard to do. This is why Foster suggests hiring do-ers (proactive, autonomous people), trustworthy people, and people who can communicate effectively.
- Tools. 🛠
A strong virtual team needs strong digital tools behind them. Zapier makes use of tools like Slack, Zoom, Quip, Wufoo, BambooHR, Trello, and Help Scout to ensure their virtual team has everything they need to do great work, and keep on the same page while doing so.
- Processes. 🚀
Processes are rather fantastic, and Foster understands the importance of using solid, effective processes to help manage a virtual team. Just check out the insightful quote below.
“The third ingredient in a powerful remote team is process. I know most people don’t like to think about process, and process might feel boring and rigid. But if you think of process as “how we work,” it starts to feel more powerful.
Good processes let you get work done in the absence of all else. It provides structure and direction for getting things done.
That doesn’t mean processes should be rigid, unchanging, or pointless, though. Process, at a small company, is more about providing a feedback loop so that you can measure progress for both the company and the people in the company.” – Wade Foster, Managing from Afar: How to Run a Remote Team
To sum up, Foster says Zapier’s success has come from having a strong team, great digital tools, and stellar processes to help manage the virtual team and streamline the team’s work.
Overcome virtual team challenges with Process Street!
Wave goodbye ✋ to unsynchronized, uncommunicative, and uncollaborative virtual teams. Say hello 👋 to remote working as you’ve never experienced it before.
The processes you document with Process Street are your choice.
From a virtual team P.O.V., you can create templates for your virtual team’s sprint planning, sprint retrospective, weekly and monthly meeting planning, content creation, content promotion, marketing plans, the customer support process… the list is truly endless!
To help you get started, use some of our ready-made templates that’ll bolster your virtual team exponentially:
- Daily Schedule Template
- Daily Standup Meeting Checklist
- Employee Onboarding Checklist
- Employee Background Check
- Job Application Form
- Job Description Template
- Performance Review Checklist
- Project Proposal Template
- Sprint Planning
- Sprint Retrospective Process
- Recruitment Process
- Standup Meeting Checklist
Want to make your own templates from scratch?
We’ve got you covered.
Just sign up for a (forever) free account and make tailor-made templates today. Check out the webinar below to learn how to create powerful templates and checklists yourself.
We can’t wait for you to take control of your processes and lead your virtual team to true success.
Are you the leader or manager of a virtual team? If so, are there any tips and tricks regarding virtual teams that you’d like to share with the Process Street community? Your advice could be featured in an upcoming article! 💡