There are a lot of benefits to virtual teams—you’re not constrained by geography and staff members have a lot more flexibility. However, there are also challenges. It can be difficult to collaborate, interpret communication, build trust among team members, and more. To some degree, technology can compensate for the shortcomings of a virtual environment. Here are five kinds of tools that help.
You need a way to share documents that everyone can edit, preferably without having to upload and download. Ideally you want collaborative editing that lets you see the edits as they are happening. We have used Google Docs for brainstorming—the way you might use a flip chart or whiteboard in person—and the experience has been interesting. Our team tends toward the introverted end of the spectrum, so we get more participation this way. When they don't have to wait their turn to speak up, but instead can just type into a document, they seem more eager to jump into the fray.
Virtual Phone System
There needs to be an easy way to transfer calls between people and also a main number with a directory. At Idealware, we use RingCentral. There are a lot of good options, but we liked this one because it gives people a lot of flexibility on which device they use to place and receive calls. I use my laptop with a headset, Chris uses his cell phone, and Dan uses a landline. Any of us can set RingCentral to ring to one of more of these. We can also place outgoing calls from any of these devices.
If you're interacting only by voice, then you are missing a whole layer of communication that comes through facial expressions and body language. Video is the norm for us, and most of the time if I want to talk to a coworker, I use that rather than calling them on the phone. We had sort of a bake-off between four different platforms and ended up with Skype for a while since it seemed to give us the best video and audio quality on low bandwidth. However, when we got everyone on faster connections, we started going back to Google Hangouts since it is so well integrated into the rest of the Google Apps platform—that's a big convenience.
We had to find a back channel for the breakroom/water cooler conversations and we also had to find a way to virtualize the courtesy of knocking on someone's door to see if they're available for a conversation. Here again there are plenty of good options, but we chose Google Hangouts (just the chat functionality) because it fit pretty seamlessly with our other tools. We set up a Virtual Breakroom channel where we post announcements, jokes, vacation pictures, questions we want to toss out to the whole group, and so forth. When I want to start an unscheduled video conference with a coworker, I often "knock" first via chat, because I don't have many other signals to indicate whether they are immersed in a heads down project, on the phone, or in some other form of do-not-disturb mode.
Technology can do a lot but there's no substitute for getting together in person. When we meet up, we try to focus on activities that are difficult to do virtually, such as getting to know each other on a more personal level and building trust and rapport among team members. That means we don't necessarily get a lot of work done, and it feels weird to compress half a year's worth of hanging out into a few days of intense togetherness, but I think we all appreciate its importance. For me, I always come out of those get-togethers feeling fortunate to work with such smart and interesting colleagues.
Virtual teams have many advantages, but there are also some limitations. Fortunately, with just a few simple tools—some of which you are likely using already—even a nonprofit with a tiny budget can overcome those limitations and find ways to be productive and coordinated. And by using the tools in ways that simulate some of the social atmosphere of an office, you can also hang on to a sense of community.
Learn More at NTC!
Come see Heather Martin and me present Virtual Organizations: Managing Remote Employees at NTC! Bring your questions and experiences—I'd love to hear what's working for you and what challenges you're still figuring out.