How to build a high-performing team when you work virtually

skyeteam leadership development morag barrett

How to build a sense of connection and relationships with virtual team members.


My guess is that you have experienced working in a virtual team. Where you, or at least one of your colleagues works in a different location (whether that's the building next door or another country). The coworker who you rarely see face-to-face, unless it's on a google hangout or videoconference.

In today's hyper-connected and increasingly global workplace it has become more and more common to experience virtual teams. Where collaboration, teamwork and communication happens through the web, phone, email or other technology.  

I've been asked to work with a CTO and his leadership team who are based in the US and in the UK. The goal is to build a sense of team, a foundation of trust that will improve communication and collaboration, ultimately helping ensure this team delivers on it's business strategy and goals. In preparing for that session I started to reflect on my experience of virtual teams, what works, and what doesn’t.

Virtual teams are a way of life for many of us.  The concept may not be given a second thought, that is, unless you are “the virtual team member” in which case the challenges can become all to apparent.  When I ask my clients how they would describe being part of a virtual team the picture is not pretty.  I will often hear the following:

"It's lonely, like I'm on an island on my own. There is no sense of team!"

"It doesn't feel like I'm a peer on this team, emails are sent checking in on progress, rarely am I asked how I can contribute. The time difference doesn't help, but why does it feel like I'm always the one who has to get online at an unsocial hour? How about making the accommodation for me once in a while?"

”What team?  It’s OK for those in the main office, for the rest of us, it is out of sight out of mind.”

Which got me to thinking. Does it have to be this way?

I am part of a virtual team, my company, SkyeTeam, is global and our team members are all based out of their own home offices.  Where we can, we try to come together regularly, whether that is through co-facilitating programs, speaking at conferences, or simply through the use of webcams and technology.  It makes a difference, building a high performing virtual team doesn't happen by accident. It requires care and attention.

If your virtual team is located across multiple time-zones, languages and cultures the challenge of building a sense of team and promoting collaboration and teamwork can be exacerbated. The good news is that members of a virtual team can experience the camaraderie and high performance of a co-located team.  

Here are my eight tips to set your virtual team up for success:

  • Create opportunities to get to know the people on the team. Learn about hobbies and life outside of work. Start each meeting with the opportunity for “small-talk” which can have a big-impact on the social bonds between team members.  What do they do for fun? When are they at their best?

  • Seek to understand the different perspectives of each team member.  By this I mean culture, values, expectations.  How business is conducted and how this might influence the way meetings and conversations happen online.

  • Remember the small stuff. When we are co-located in an office it’s easy to swing by someone’s desk and catch up. To wish them “Happy Birthday” to suggest they leave early on a Friday afternoon, or to remind them that you will be out of the office on Tuesday morning.  Doing this with virtual team members simply requires you to focus.  Set yourself a reminder if you need to, but share the ‘office news’ and ensure that you are not simply calling your remote team members when you need something.

  • Strive for Inclusiveness. If you are having bagels served in a breakfast meeting (for your timezone) find a way to get snacks delivered to others on the call (for whom it may be afternoon or evening). Taking a little time and effort to ensure an inclusive approach will differentiate your leadership, and build team bonds.

  • Bring the team together. Notwithstanding the potential cost, you can’t beat bringing the team together face to face.  Whether it is once a year or more frequently this can go a long way to establishing the basis for a strong and cohesive team.  Be creative, don’t simply select corporate HQ, look at other opportunities and locations, maybe a conference that you will be attending.

  • Include relationship time in your meeting agenda. When you do get together don’t just cram the agenda full of “business items” what needs to be achieved, build in time for team building, the how stuff will get done and the team will work together. I include “white space” in SkyeTeam High Performing Team sessions, time with NOTHING on the agenda where team members can be sent off in pairs or small groups to explore the city and to simply chat and get to know one another.

  • Use technology sensitively.  Technology continues to accelerate it’s impact and ability to aid virtual teams.  I use a service called uberconference for our webinars and telephone conferences.  It allows those attending to register and upload a photo so you can “see” who is participating.  What I particularly like, is whether someone registers or not, the technology highlights the phone number (or picture) of the person that is talking in the moment – it is very neat, no more embarrassing moments of “Was that Mary or Fiona speaking there?”  

  • Give priority to the remote team members. When I'm on a conference call, especially if I have a group of people in a live meeting room, I like to make the rules of engagement explicit. I will often start by letting the people on the phone know that “they have the  power” that if at anytime they have something they want to add they simply need to start talking or make a noise, and we in the conference room will defer to them.  You know what I mean, when we are face to face we see the body language, we tend to talk and forget about the people on the phone.  Give them priority, keep them involved and you will benefit from their insight and contributions.

In my experience the tools and tactics that we use in our high performing team sessions are as applicable in a virtual team. It is that the implementation and execution of them has to happen louder, more consistently and with discipline.  The first time you say

“Oh I am so sorry I forgot to include you / send you the information / to let you know..”

will not only damage your credibility as a leader, it will damage the commitment to, and sense of, team.

What advice do you have for building a high performing virtual team? do share in the comments below, I'd love to hear from you.

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