Collaboration is the glue that holds teams, projects, and organizations together. For decades, companies developed best practices, including team-building activities, for establishing cohesion among staff.
But as more teams shift to remote and hybrid work schedules, some of these best practices no longer fit. Rope courses, ice-breakers, and holiday gift exchanges just don’t have the same feel in virtual form.
Still, remote and hybrid teams do need to sync their efforts and keep the lines of communication open. While staff and managers must become more proactive about teamwork in an online environment, they can achieve success.
Whether your group needs a crash course or a refresher in virtual collaboration, here are four ways to make improvements.
1. Centralize Projects and Tasks
When co-workers occupy the same space every day, they can rely on impromptu conversations to keep projects on track. They can huddle around one person’s computer and instantly share what they’re doing. Team members get immediate feedback and assistance. Colleagues also have the advantage of asking questions as they come to mind.
All of this can fall by the wayside with virtual teams if you don’t use tools that centralize everyone’s work. Apps such as communication and project management software shouldn’t be a debate given modern work arrangements.
Without them, you and your staff will spend a lot of time with your ear up against the phone. And inevitably, someone will end up forgetting to include a team member in a critical conversation or two.
Project management and communication tools increase online collaboration by replicating some of the advantages in-person teams take for granted. Digital whiteboards, project roadmaps and progress reports, and individual assignment details bring the team’s efforts together.
There will be fewer opportunities for work to stall and employees to become excluded. Conversations, documents, instructions, and real-time collaboration can all happen in the same virtual space.
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2. Use Communication Tools Strategically
It’s natural to use communication tools you’re familiar with, but falling back on these methods can impede virtual collaboration. Before you send an email, think about the desired interaction.
Back-and-forth email exchanges don’t work well for urgent requests, brainstorming, or reaching a consensus. Even if employees have their email accounts synced to their smartphones, you can’t expect them to respond after hours.
Instead, use instant messaging, online collaboration sessions, and meetings with video cameras turned on. While you don’t have to completely abandon traditional ways of communicating, limit them to situations where synchronous conversations aren’t necessary.
By engaging and working with colleagues in real-time, you’ll increase productivity and camaraderie. Remote team members won’t feel like they’re on an island, and they’ll see how their contributions fit.
Using video cameras versus just audio allows staff to pick up verbal and nonverbal communication cues. Videoconferencing for meetings helps make conversations more personal and less prone to misunderstandings.
While some people are adept at reading others through voice, many rely on body language. Plus, if the entire group works remotely full time, abstaining from video makes it challenging to establish human-to-human connections.
3. Set Expectations as a Group
It’s a given that people won’t meet expectations if they’re unknown or there’s a lack of buy-in. To improve teamwork, all employees need to help establish guidelines. Implementing a democratic approach to the creation of communication and cooperation norms proves collaboration isn’t an empty buzzword.
Workers get to participate in an exercise illustrating how virtual collaboration can work and determine standards that will impact their contributions.
Those standards might include weekly scheduled team meetings with predetermined agendas and daily progress reports. Team communication norms could also include agreeing to work on certain documents or decisions together.
You might outline guidelines for using online workspaces versus document-sharing tools. After a few months, you could come back together to tweak things based on lessons learned.
Whatever standards the group sets, holding each other accountable should also be a team effort. A common reason employees fail to live up to expectations is lack of enforcement.
If someone can get away with something, there’s no incentive for others to follow the rules. Those who do may start to resent colleagues who don’t, become disengaged, and stop collaborating.
Related Resource: How to Manage Your Team Virtually during the Pandemic COVID-19 Time
4. Keep Things in Balance
Remote and hybrid work feels different and even strange to some. The idea that commuting to a separate place of employment is more “legitimate” than remote work remains pervasive. This is so much the case that 70% of surveyed managers view remote workers as more replaceable than on-site employees.
Although surveyed remote workers find their arrangements boost performance, 55% believe permanent work-from-home situations will hurt professional relationships.
These perceptions may cause supervisors and employees to overcompensate when it comes to virtual collaboration. Examples include multiple daily check-ins and meetings for the sake of bringing everyone together.
Meetings without clear agendas and mandatory asynchronous team-building assignments could exemplify a need for control. Staff members might perceive this as busy work or an impediment to progress.
There should be a clear purpose behind every video call, meeting, and collaborative exercise. Instead of spending too much time talking about work, let the results of employees’ efforts speak for themselves.
Getting a virtual team in sync is demanding because remote work removes most of the workplace’s social norms. Effective collaboration is up to every staff member.
Rethinking assignment tracking, communication methods and norms, and the validity of working from home mean changing how groups define cohesiveness. To improve virtual collaboration, a team must discover the full capabilities of online tools and use them strategically.