Many of us hide an embarrassing secret at work. It’s not the sort of thing you can talk about in public, and you really wouldn’t want anyone to find out. But it’s time to talk about it, now: we just don’t understand this virtual team stuff, and we definitely aren’t comfortable with working closely with people we have never met.

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Often our only contact is limited to grainy, poorly lit images on a webcam and broken sound over an internet call. We don’t understand why they won’t do what we expect them to do, we are constantly blamed for things they haven’t done on time, and we’re confident they often go behind our backs.

There seems to be a breakdown in accountability, reduced responsibility and lack of clarity. To make matters worse, more and more companies are creating virtual or matrix teams, allowing colleagues to work from home on a regular basis, and creating functional teams that span huge geographies and time zones.

The reality is that many of us do not share an office with our colleagues – even those we have the most contact with. We may not even work in the same time zone as our line manager. Clients, colleagues, partners, suppliers, agents, and other contacts are spread across large parts of the world, and we are expected to be as effective as if we were in the same room.

Fixing a Broken Virtual Team

Fortunately, help is at hand. We can start to break down the barriers caused by our discomfort with remote team working with a few simple steps.

Step one, therefore of fixing broken virtual teams, is to set clear ground rules about frequency of contact and updates

1. Set clear ground rules

When you can physically see your colleagues, you can tell when they are busy and shouldn’t be disturbed. You know when they are having a bad day. Often there is no need to have a regular catch-up meeting because you can just ask across the office.

When you are frustrated by the lack of movement, there is no need to send a potentially confusing email, you just get up and ask what the holdup is – and you can then moderate your reaction based on the reply you get.

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Step one, therefore of fixing broken virtual teams, is to set clear ground rules about frequency of contact and updates. How do you show that you should not be disturbed – can you use your instant messaging software to show your status (e.g. Skype for Business)?

Some teams agree on a 60-minute window each day, with the time varying to allow for different time zones, when they are always available for short interruptions.

Each team will need individual guidelines, but the important thing is to make them explicit and part of the working routine. The ground rules are something that each new member of the team should receive as part of their induction.

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2. Allow time to get to know each other

Humans are social animals, and we need to understand each other to communicate effectively. Too often in virtual teams, we want to be very task focused and minimize the time spent on trivial matters. This means that we don’t know our colleagues – and we have an instinctive distrust of the unknown.

The most effective virtual teams are those that allow time on every call or in every video meeting to talk about social matters, family, friends – in short anything that is not directly relatable to the work project in hand.

For some cultures, this will come easily, for others, especially the task focused Swiss or Australians, this will need practice, but the reward for investing time is a team that is built on mutual trust and respect – and we know that that will increase the effectiveness (and efficiency) of the team.

3. Define roles, responsibility and accountability

Bruce Tuckman’s model of team building – forming, storming, norming – is well known and a common feature of business teams. However, in virtual teams, we often forget the forming stage.

The most effective virtual teams are those that allow time on every call or in every video meeting to talk about social matters, family, friends

This is the stage when we set formal rules, boundaries of responsibility and accountability lines. In a co-located team, these often evolve more-or-less naturally, but in the virtual context they need a lot more work – and need to be explicit.

In an un- “formed” virtual team, each person proceeds to the storming and norming phases independently. This leads to conflicting expectations, micro management, oversights and confusion. Everyone needs to understand his or her specific place within the team, regardless of titles or even position in the formal org-chart.

4. Understand the cultural differences

Again, a common feature of physical teams is a breakdown of communication due to cultural differences. In the virtual space, this risk is amplified as we remove a lot of the visual and environmental clues that help us understand other people. Is that a direct way of asking me to do something, or is it rude?

Using a tool to understand the cultural makeup, not only of your team members but also of yourself, will significantly ease your working relationships.

A skilled facilitator will help you use the tool to start the process of developing a unique team culture that mitigates the risk potential of clashing national or personal cultures.

A common feature of physical teams is a breakdown of communication due to cultural differences.

5. Train other leaders and teams

One of the biggest challenges in a virtual team is that co-located colleagues and managers have the physical presence to reinforce requests. This can confuse priorities and lead to conflicting instructions.

The ideal solution is to train all leaders and managers to raise awareness of overlapping priorities and potential challenges.

It goes without saying that it is important to train those who work virtually – we need to adapt our communication style for the virtual environment and learn new skills for virtual collaboration.

It would also be valuable to use whatever tools you have – Yammer, Slack, etc., an in-house newsletter, intranet etc. – to publicize best practice around virtual working, and to work with virtual workers and encourage best practice and knowledge sharing on perhaps even a competition for the best virtual team.