Geographically dispersed teams, also known as virtual teams, are fast becoming the norm these days and it is not uncommon for people in 2 or more cities to be collaborating on the same project.

This poses special challenges for human beings, who sometimes struggle to collaborate even when they are sitting in the same physical office.

Here are a few tips that you can use to make virtual teams work:

Make time for face time

A company that I once worked with was experiencing significant trust problems between their team in Vancouver and the team in Korea. What did they do? They sent the Vancouver team to Seoul to do a day or two of work together, then played a soccer match followed by beers at the local pub. The overall level of trust and teamwork became excellent after this, and the organization remains largely successful.

No matter how you do it, make sure that people actually come together physically from time to time and that they spend a little personal time together.

Don’t use the phone – videoconference instead

It is amazing how many people rely on email and the odd phone call when they have videoconference software such as Skype installed on their own PC.

When people are actually in the same room, most human communication is non-verbal, followed by tone and finally the words themselves. This is why arguments tend to escalate over email and deescalate when people meet to resolve differences.

Even when it is not possible to be in the same location, many of the benefits of face time can be maintained by videoconferencing for intra-office communication whenever possible.

Have a team-wide filing structure

People working in the same office often have a hard time accessing each other’s information due to a lack of electronic filing standards, which can be a major barrier to teamwork. For virtual teams, it is even more important that any individual on the team knows how to access each other’s information.

Design a good team-wide filing structure and ensure that everyone is educated on how to use it.

Focus on team-wide business processes

Signs of poor process are when people in different locations have their own “optimized” way of doing things that get in the way of the larger team being able to interoperate.

Processes need to be designed to operate at the level of the wider team, not individual areas. Getting there often requires some “change management”, but it is well worth it.

Respect people’s personal time when working across time zones

When working across time zones, agree on when the best time for meetings will be that avoid cutting into personal time as much as possible.

It is generally most important to avoid habitually calling meetings that result in people sacrificing their evenings which are typically when family time occurs.

For example, if based in Vancouver it is generally best to schedule meetings with Europe in the early mornings and Asia in the late afternoon.

How many of these tips are you already employing with your virtual team?

Russel Horowitz, Principal