Almost every team I have worked with over the past 10 years has had to conduct at least part of its business virtually. I’ve seen teams do excellent work virtually and experience smooth sailing. Others never quite learn the ropes and lose their way.
It’s not hard to succeed working virtually, but it is different from being in a room together. Some of those differences, like relying on a camera and screen to see each other, are obvious. Other differences are more subtle, they take time to adapt to and master.
There’s a lot of advice out there on how to navigate virtual collaboration. For those who are interested, here are my twelve must-dos, organized into three categories, to ensure your virtual team interactions get you where you want to go, in ship-shape.
1. Start with in-person connection: Technologies like Slack® and Blue Jeans® are a boon to teams. They enhance communication, connectedness and enable remote co-creation. When it comes to establishing relationships though, tech cannot replace good, old-fashioned time spent together. There are two instances where it’s vitally important to be physically in the same place at the same time: when you are kicking off a new team or working on improving relationships. For typical intact or project teams being together for your first meeting is indispensable. After that about 2x per year, face-to-face (F2F) is ideal assuming that you stay connected in between your F2F meetings. For team development work, F2F is preferred, especially if you plan on going deep. Sure, getting distributed teams together costs more. The pay-off, especially in the two instances I just described, is worth the investment.
2. Don’t expect technology to make your team better: Technology is never a substitute for doing the groundwork required to help a team perform. If your team hasn’t figured out what it’s about - why its collaboration matters, what work requires collaboration and which doesn’t, etc. - then no technology will make a difference to team outcomes. Start with answering the basic questions about your team and then use technology to enable your collaboration. (for more on this see my HBR.org article)
3. Take time to train: Today’s sophisticated collaboration apps are far from bug-free. We make things worse by not knowing how to get the most out of them. Be sure you and your team get trained in what these apps can do and how to make the most of their features so that your collaboration flourishes and meetings go smoothly.
4. Have a back-up plan: No technology is perfect. When planning a virtual meeting, especially one involving video, have a plan for what you’ll do if your app isn’t having a good day. The most common back up is a dial-in phone number. Also consider having a back-up app. For instance, I’ve started a meeting using Skype® . Then, when that got glitchy, we switched to Zoom® . The two-app approach is a decent solution just remember to plan for it: everyone involved must have the back-up app installed, tested and ready to use.
5. Less is more: Four-hour virtual meetings are deadly and unproductive. Whether you’re using video or audio, team members are going to check out. Keep meetings to no longer than 90 minutes, 60 minutes if possible. If you have a lot to cover, break your agenda into separate, shorter meetings over a few days.
6. Mix it up: Ninety minutes devoted to one or two people talking at the team is a guaranteed way to lose a virtual audience. Mix it up. Start with a short presentation. Then, actively facilitate a conversation, being sure to invite quiet individuals into the discussion. Next, use the whiteboard feature of your meeting app (if it has one) to gather input in real time. If your app has a polling feature, use it to engage your audience in a different way. Use whatever is at your disposal to build variety into your virtual sessions.
7. Use pre-work – a lot: Deep dives and detailed presentations during virtual meetings are mind-numbing. When you must share detail, plan accordingly. Create slide decks or white papers and insist team members to read them in advance. Then, use your virtual meeting to dig into key details, to make decisions or to resolve issues uncovered in the pre-work.
8. Pay attention to time zones: I worked for a manager once, based in NJ, who led a global team. He preferred morning meetings. That worked for the team members in Europe, who were 5 or 6 hours ahead of us. Even our colleagues in Asia weren’t too inconvenienced so long as we met in the early morning, NJ time. Our poor Australia-based, colleagues, however, paid dearly. They were up in the middle of the night every other week to attend these meetings. Their resentment built and it eventually led to some difficult conversations. If you are working with a global team, be flexible with your meeting times and do your best to regularly shift the burden of off-hour meetings.
9. Contract for how you will facilitate: When I facilitate virtual meetings, my team is going to hear from me more often than when we are face-to-face. I can become down-right annoying with my regular, small check-ins and redirections. But, they’re necessary. So, I am very clear up front that this is what the group should expect. Tell your group before you begin that you are going to be a more active facilitator than at other times, and that you may even interrupt them from time to time. They will appreciate it and your meeting will benefit.
10. Be an active facilitator: As suggested in #9, virtual interactions benefit from well-planned, active facilitation. Think about your meeting topics, which ones are likely to be contentious, which ones you expect to flow smoothly. Then, plan to facilitate accordingly. On a piece of paper, sketch out a virtual table with attendees around it. Keep track of who’s contributing and who isn’t. Don’t be shy about inviting less outspoken people into discussions. Nor should you hesitate to redirect when one participant is holding the floor too long. The key is to keep up a good pace and to keep your team engaged throughout.
11. Do regular check-ins: We are all prone to distraction. While on a team call or video, we check our inbox, polish up a presentation or text with a loved one. It’s going to happen. To minimize the impact of these inevitable distractions, every 15 minutes or so, if you haven’t heard from everyone, mention a name and ask how that person is doing. “Carlos, how’s it going today? You hanging in there?” Keep it gentle and non-accusatory while letting people know that their involvement matters.
12. Know when to take things off-line: Conflict is hard enough when it’s F2F. It gets much riskier when it arises in a group working remotely. Even with video technology, we can’t read body language accurately. Nor do we pick up on subtle vocal intonations. The fact that there is a team of people witnessing the conflict only adds pressure. If a conflict arises during a virtual meeting and doesn’t resolve within a few minutes (not more than 5 minutes is my rule of thumb) consider inviting those involved to take it off-line. If the conflict must be settled for the meeting to progress, consider pausing the meeting. Let those not involved go tend to other things so that the parties to the conflict can address their differences in the moment. Reconvene when you’ve gotten things sorted.
Virtual collaboration and meetings are substantially different from working together face-to-face. Keep those differences in mind; be sure to set aside time to plan and be willing to keep your hand firmly on the tiller as you navigate virtual meetings. If you do, you can expect smooth sailing and better outcomes.