By: Leanne Armstrong
Just because your team is virtual, it doesn’t mean joining forces digitally should be holding you back. In fact, research and experience have shown that many of the challenges of being distant from our colleagues can be mitigated or overcome by:
- Employing the right tools and technologies
- Demonstrating and encouraging self-driven leadership skills
- Following virtual collaboration best practices
You and your team can gain a lot, for example, from knowing the best ways to pool your resources electronically.
Benefits range from time and expense savings (think instant communications without the cost of document printing or filing) to improved focus, comprehension, and execution (think real-time brainstorming, planning, and strategy tracking).
And like many methodologies, virtual collaboration skills can be learned.
So whether your team labors apart geographically, or you’re separated by work schedules and a few office walls, discovering how to boost productivity online will make it easier for everyone to perform to the best of their collective ability.
Here’s a roundup of virtual collaboration best practices, activities, and ideas that you and your team should consider to make working together (while apart) more effective.
Virtual collaboration best practices
By implementing a few basic virtual collaboration best practices, you can propel your team toward achieving their goals more efficiently and with as few alignment hiccups as possible.
One of the keys to collaborating effectively from a distance is being mindful of how team members communicate and spend their time – both together and when working alone.
Without a structured approach to time and talk management:
- Vital group messaging can become sporadic
- Pivotal questions and problems can go unexplored or unanswered
- Your shared sense of direction can be lost
With that in mind, here are 4 virtual collaboration best practices that will help you build a functional, cooperative distance team framework.
1. Meet up regularly
Just like physical crews, virtual teams rely on regular meet-ups to stay in sync around shared vision, workflow, and objectives. Meeting via video or a team messaging app is a great solution, but can be tiring and intrusive if overscheduled. When making the switch from in-person dealings especially, aim to establish (or adapt) standing meetings – rather than adding to them – and make sure you always set and keep to an agenda.
2. Craft a joint messaging policy
With fewer facial and body signals to rely on, virtual communications can get bogged down and take time away from individual work by the need to be overly explicit. You and your team will make better headway if you craft and tweak a living policy around what’s acceptable and appropriate in terms of communication timing, content, and delivery systems.
3. Learn to leverage file sharing services
File sharing services are cloud-based tools that allow team members to store, distribute, and access communal documents and other data. Learning to use services like Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, or Box, for example, will allow your group to share information faster so they can work better alone, together, and at the same time.
4. Work side-by-side virtually
Virtual collaboration best practices should leave lots of space for your team to work side-by-side. You might consider setting up a virtual video room, for example, where teammates can work on individual tasks, ask each other questions, and enjoy the occasional exchange of work-related banter. You can also take advantage of a versatile, visual platform like MindManager to work on map-based plans, projects, and similar collaborative activities as a group.
Virtual collaboration activities
Virtual teams sometimes have few if any opportunities to socialize in person. And that can make it disturbingly difficult to get to know or build rapport with one another.
Without a well-laid plan for adopting virtual collaboration activities, digital distance can reduce motivation at best, and stifle productivity – or lead to conflict among individuals – at worst.
Prioritizing virtual team-building is one way to work past common challenges and establish a greater sense of unity. Not only will you promote empathy, you’ll make it easier to develop the kind of kinship that’s required to collaborate more successfully, more often.
Virtual collaboration team-building activities
Before you can tap into the virtual collaboration advantages that come through team building, you’ll need to:
- Get your team up to speed on the videoconferencing technology of your choice
- Come up with activity ideas designed to foster cooperative skills
- Be prepared to keep team members engaged by keeping the action moving forward
While virtual collaboration activities should be enjoyable, ‘fun’ shouldn’t necessarily be the main focus. As you create or research exercises for your team, try starting with specific, growth-driven objectives and fleshing out your activities from there.
Is it your goal to help sales personnel get better at closing deals? Role-playing exercises that develop valuable negotiation skills are an easy group activity to host virtually.
Does collaborating around product development make up the bulk of your teamwork? Creating or tracking down an online Escape Room-type challenge can help boost creative thinking skills within a group environment.
Do you need your team to ramp up their marketing or customer service results? Given the importance of listening skills in client-facing roles especially, activities that include walking others through a set of verbal instructions (to complete a picture, puzzle, or origami project, for example) could prove ideal.
Here are a few more examples of online team-bonding activities that can help take your virtual collaboration best practices to the next level:
- Timed, team-based word-forming games (with a few letters assigned to each person) can improve group communication
- Stranded-on-an-island type challenges (with a list of items to be ranked by importance) can inspire team-driven critical thinking
- Toast vs bagel debates (where the losing item is doomed to disappear from existence – only to be replaced by a new item and another round of discussions) can foster healthy joint decision-making
Pro Tip: Make sure you leave enough time for introductions or casual greetings before each team-building activity (using ice-breaking exercises when necessary) and that you find ways for everyone to practice, contribute, and be heard.
Virtual collaboration work activities
You can also rewire many of your regular work activities so they’re primed to promote virtual cooperation. All your team needs are the knowledge and opportunity to wield tools like instant messaging, online chat, and virtual meeting or mapping software.
Virtual collaboration can prove especially effective for recurring activities like:
- Group brainstorming
- Team project planning, or
- One-on-one mentoring
Remember, the best way to nurture good digital working dynamics is with virtual collaboration best practices that include authentic improvisations of in-person activities.
Virtual collaboration ideas
There’s no reason why virtual teammates can’t be as innovative as their conference-room counterparts – especially when it comes to solving problems and overcoming hurdles for themselves, their clients, or their organization.
Whether physically driven or virtual, collaboration best practices are central to creativity.
So if you’re looking for ways to keep the creative juices flowing when your team comes together, here are some virtual collaboration ideas that will help take you from initial meetings to presenting your work to stakeholders.
Ramp up the visual
Mood boards, graphs, charts, and other images have always been important for spicing up meetings and presentations. But the role of visuals like these reaches a whole new level of importance when those get-togethers go virtual.
You may find it easier to recapture the energy of face-to-face interactions if you incorporate mind maps and other easy-to-follow diagrams into your gatherings to create excitement and generate conversation.
Emphasize active listening
Listening with intent is one of the most important virtual collaboration skills to master. Not only should you always be ready with a few key questions to get your team thinking, emphasizing active listening and group problem-solving in your team-building activities will help those skills carry over when they’re most needed.
Become virtual brainstorm virtuosos
The best brainstorming sessions walk a fine line between free-flowing enjoyment and active engagement. Fortunately, one of the biggest virtual collaboration advantages is the ability to access innovative technology platforms that make the creative process both fun and efficient.
Your team can use MindManager, for example, as a visual, virtual whiteboard to quickly gather and map out their thoughts and ideas. You can even integrate other great collaborative tools, like SharePoint and Google Docs, into your brainstorming diagrams.
Help lead the way virtually
When it comes to creating plans and delegating tasks, leading your team in the right direction is just as important as arming them with the right digital platforms. To help connect the dots from a distance, make sure you work alongside your team virtually to hammer out project details, preempt problems, and monitor ongoing results.
Many of the same teamwork skills and practices that support in-person efforts can be tweaked to bridge the gap between virtual team members. Instilling trust, encouraging dialogue around great ideas, and ensuring everyone has a voice starts with a dedicated mindset and the right virtual collaboration tools.