Creating a World That Works for All
What We’re Learning as a Virtual Team
Maria Jesus Aguilo
“Ok, I’m now part of a virtual team. Um, how’s that going to work, exactly?”
That’s the somewhat scary question we asked ourselves after Berrett-Koehler reorganized earlier this year to create a new “International Sales and Business Development” comprising…us. We all knew each other well and had worked collaboratively for years on discrete projects. But we’d never before been a formal team with shared strategic goals and responsibilities. We wondered what challenges we could expect, given that Johanna works from Perth, Australia, while Maria Jesus often works from home in San Francisco’s East Bay—and sometimes from her family’s home in Spain. And Catherine was on the record as preferring in-person interactions. Hmmm.
As evidence of our truly dispersed team, here’s a snippet from our most recent check-in:
Catherine: “Next time we’ll speak, we will be in three different time zones.”
Maria Jesus: “On three different continents.”
Johanna: “In two hemispheres.”
How more global could we possibly be?
Despite our initial uncertainties, our smooth teamwork thus far has gratified us all. But we had some help getting there. When our team first formed, we contacted BK authors to crowd-source advice on best practices around virtual teams. (One of the best things about working at Berrett-Koehler is that you often get all sorts of free advice from BK’s own savvy and generous authors.) We got great tips from Deanna Zandt, Janelle Barlow, Mark Miller, Jennifer Kahnweiler, and Chris Avery. Our online social networks helped direct us to useful tools like wideteams.com. And we found loads of useful information online thanks to BK partner Books24X7.
We thought we’d share what we’ve been learning, in case you’re part of a virtual team, or if you think you might be in the future.
Make it personal. The most consistent advice we received was to avoid depending too much on email and chat, which can be create opportunities for disconnect. Email often misfires on tone, and chats can leave others out of the conversation and information flow. And Deanna Zandt advises: “it's just too easy to let things fall by the wayside because you're waiting for an email to come back to you.” Instead, use the phone when convenient; video conferencing is even better. That has certainly been excellent advice in our case. At first, MJ and Catherine were hesitant to phone Johanna. Johanna wondered why no one ever called her, even during overlapping business hours. After a good heart-to-heart and some practice, we now use Skype for meetings whenever possible, and the phone actually feels too impersonal! Catherine reports that her “old-fashioned mind” is impressed by the technology; she’s enjoying our virtual conversations, and especially enjoying seeing Johanna and Maria Jesus on her computer screen. “This says a lot for me,” Catherine acknowledges. “I always thought I’d always favor in-person conversations, but I have to admit, Skype definitely makes our conversations feel intimate. Even a tech-resistant mind like mine can adapt, too, and enjoy change!
Lastly and perhaps most importantly, experts all report that meeting in person at least once a year is key. We’re happy to oblige and look forward to future in-person team meetings in the San Francisco office and at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Raise the bar on meeting management. Jennifer Kahnweiler wisely reminded us: “Good meeting management is not very different for ‘live’ sessions, but it’s even more important in the remote setting. You don't want to waste time. Agendas and pre-meeting reviews of materials make for more efficient virtual meetings.” Moreover, attention to small details and a little human touch can make a big difference. We’re learning that it’s important to identify everyone’s time zones in every meeting invitation. And we verbally acknowledge at the meeting whether it is morning, evening or night for the meeting attendees.
Set clear expectations in communications. Since team-members can’t just check-in at the water-cooler or over lunch, it’s especially important to set clear expectations. When closing a phone or video meeting, always re-cap decisions made and identify to-do’s. When emailing, use the subject line to emphasize the action requested, and make sure the email itself spells out a clear deadline.
What to do when technology fails? Technology is great…until it’s not. Virtual teams expert Claire Sookman. had this excellent advice on preparing for and managing the inevitable: tech failure:
Don’t Buy the Myths about Remote Work. A lot of contradictory opinions proliferate about remote teams. We admit to wondering ourselves about those contradictions. This wideteams.com blog post helped set us straight on answers to questions like: Are remote workers less more easily distracted? Can you really work “side-by-side” with someone who isn’t in the same building? Will we be less productive as a virtual team? In the end, we’re learning that, with a little practice and preparation, team success all comes down to RESULTS.
We hope these tips are useful to you. If you have your own best practices or advice for virtual teams, please let us know.
Maria Jesus, Catherine, and Johanna
PS: We also recommend some of the free podcast materials offered on the website for the American Management Association. See this one, for example, on “Managing People at a Distance”.