The Secret Sauce to Managing Virtual Teams (Hint: Think Collaboration)

Date: May 15, 2014 8:45:00 AM

The rise of the virtual workforce makes sense, given the hyper-connected, always "on" world in which we live. According to an article last year in Forbes, "One in five Americans work from home, numbers seen rising over 60%."

But is telecommuting good for business? Is it good for the employees? Studies would suggest yes and we agree. Last year, the Gallup Blog shared data from its State of the American Workplace report, which revealed that remote workers put in more hours and, despite the distance, many feel even more connected to the companies they work for. 

BusinessNewsDaily shared similar findings from a Staples Advantage study that showed over 90 percent of the employers surveyed believed work-from-home programs were good for the company and the employee. And earlier this year, highlighted a study conducted by Stanford Researchers that found employees who worked from home were happier, less likely to quit, and more productive to boot. 

All that said, not everyone believes in the wonders of a virtual workforce. Yahoo's CEO Marissa Mayer famously banned telecommuting last year. An internal memo from the head of Yahoo's human resource department explained the decision, "To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home."

Ah, there it is—a word we Fanhubbers know and love: collaboration.

Now, we're not here to pass judgment on Mayer's decision at Yahoo. She did what she felt was right for the company, and, as she clarified during a keynote address, she doesn't want her decision to be perceived as an industry narrative. However, we would like to address the collaboration issue.

We agree with Mayer that collaboration is important. But we disagree that collaboration can only happen when people are physically working side-by-side. In fact, we feel collaboration is the key ingredient—the secret sauce, if you will—to managing ALL types of teams (those inside the office and those working remotely).

Ten years ago, we might have said that effective collaboration can only happen when people are physically present with one another. But thanks to technology, that's no longer the case. And given some of the statistics we shared earlier, it doesn't sound like many telecommuters feel they've missed the opportunity to collaborate, either. Of course, that doesn't mean you should be passive in how you approach collaboration.


Here are five strategies for fostering a collaborative environment.

1. Schedule weekly group calls using video chats.

Seeing people's faces, albeit virtually, helps reduce feelings of isolation and subtly reminds people that they're part of something larger than the spare bedroom they're using for an office. Also, these sorts of group calls allow everyone to see important nonverbal gestures (e.g. nods, smiles, eye rolls), which can go a long way in improving overall communication.

2. Foster virtual collaboration by creating team spaces (not projects).

The beauty of working from home, of course, is the fact we're by ourselves cranking out whatever it is the boss is expecting us to do. That's fine and dandy, but like any skill (and the ability to collaborate is most definitely a skill), you need to practice it so you don't lose it. This is why you should require employees to collaborate at least some of the time. Create teams so that employees need to come together (virtually is fine…that's what the phone and video chat are for) to work through whatever it is they've been tasked to do.

Note: at Fanhub, we now call them “spaces,” instead of “projects,” since bringing people together to collaborate is less about creating the defined structure you’d find in a project management system and more about giving people the freedom--the space--to work comfortably with one another, even virtually.

3. Make collaboration fun.

When you collaborate it doesn't have to be all work and no play. Think about the times you've worked in an office and all things that had nothing to do with work, like the Halloween costume party or someone's birthday celebration or the naming contest for the new office mascot. This sort of collaboration is light, fun, and helps boost employee morale. And guess what? You can—and should—still do these things, albeit a little creatively, in a virtual world.

For example, for a team member's birthday, send one of those birthday cards where you can record a greeting (or your own silly rendition of "Happy Birthday"). Make it truly collaborative by getting other people on the team to send the same type of card with their own messages. For Halloween, tell people to dress up, snap a pic, and then share it on the company Instagram account. Everyone—employees and fans alike—can vote for the winning costume.

4. Beam me up, Scotty.

There's value in bringing people together in person, so even if you have a virtual team, you should try to get everyone together a few times a year (once a quarter is great, if everyone can swing it). This will help strengthen your ongoing collaboration efforts. That said, if you don't bother with any of the other collaborative efforts we mentioned above, you should expect these in-person meetings to feel strained. These meetings will work much better if you've been fostering a collaborative environment all along, rather than two or three times a year. People will be much more comfortable if they're already engaged and familiar with one another.

5. Use tools that foster collaboration.

We already mentioned using video chat, but other tools can also nurture a collaborative environment for virtual teams, like Google Docs, Dropbox, online master calendars, Facebook Groups, and smartphone apps.

BONUS: We'd be remiss, of course, if we didn't mention Fanhub as one of the tools you should check out. (See you knew there was a reason we showed more than five little guys in the picture.)

Fanhub is a collaborative CRM that gives you all the functionality you'd expect from a CRM, like pipeline management. But Fanhub also creates a social environment, connecting employees from separate departments or remote areas (or both), which means it's perfect for virtual teams. You can create and collaborate on specific team projects, but you can also collaborate in a company-wide sense by using the Fanwall (which is our answer for a virtual water cooler). It's social, it's fun, and it works.

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