How to run a Virtual Team?

For seven years Coseer has run as a virtual company bringing together global talent pool into a cohesive team. Here are the lessons we learnt.

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Most countries in the world have adopted some kind of shelter-in-place or lock-down measure in response to Covid-19. As a result telecommuting or remote-working has suddenly become a ubiquitous phenomenon. As the whole world is forced to consider this novel way of working, at Coseer, we have been practicing and honing the art of remote working for seven years. Here is what I have to share from that experience.

1. End the structured day to improve productivity.
The most important challenge for individuals adopting remote work is to structure their day. Esp. now, when everyone is at home, there are likely to be many distractions. Some people force a discipline to mimic their office going behavior — they shut themselves in a room between certain hours, for example. This works to an extent, but misses out on the amazing opportunities telecommuting affords. I have learnt to identify blocks of my day that are super productive, like early morning, and use those for individual work. I have also learnt to schedule my day around others in the family, for example, spending time with my daughter after school before going back to work late evening with a fresh set of eyes and an elated mood. I sacrifice the comfort of a structured day for being hyper-productive on many aspects of my life, not just my job.

2. Don’t ignore the importance of trivial things.
In this situation, like any other that forces a change of deep rooted behaviors, small things end up mattering the most. One such thing is the quality of audio-visual system at remote-workers’ place — bandwidth and stability of internet connection, quality of their speakers, and mic, the ambient noise, etc. Irrespective of how amazing my presentation may be in its insights and form, it creates a negative emotion if everyone has to strain to hear what I am saying, or if my dog decides to join the meeting, or if the construction crew on the street decides to use two jack-hammers in that very hour. All these things are very easily and cheaply fixable, and create a world of difference in productivity of remote collaboration. In well-functioning teams people will point such things out themselves, otherwise managers must delicately cajole their team members to meet these seemingly trivial standards.

3. Replace check-ins with hang-outs.
One of the hardest things for many managers of remote team is to let go of their fear that team members are not working while being remote. Typically, they compensate this by scheduling multiple routines check-ins. I have learnt that this only leads to mistrust in the team and reduced productivity overall. Instead, I have learnt to let team members initiate contact when necessary. Of course, there are regular planning meetings and there are crises, but everyone carries their own weight in general. On the other hand, a technique that is more effective in building team-effectiveness is to schedule social hang-outs, when team members come together to discuss some aspect of their personal lives. It’s important to have a structure for these even if it is let go in the first five minutes. For example, “What is the first thing you will do once the world opens up after covid?”

4. Do you really need that call?
Running a virtual team sometimes comes down to a perfected art. Your team members need enough interactions in a day to not feel isolated or left out. At the same time, they should not feel, as one of my friends eloquently put it, a “Zoom fatigue.” A remote team should be able to connect at a whim whenever its necessary. This is exactly why a remote team should not be scheduling unnecessary calls. In the absence of physical presence many things are better done over emails, slack or shared documents. So, for every call on your calendar ask the hard question — do you really need it? There is another related rule we try to follow at Coseer — if there are more than three participants on a call, there should be a really good reason for that.

5. Humans need physical contact.
As we start to look beyond the covid crisis, many are asking whether the white collar world will change to a remote-first model. Whether companies will just do away with offices. That would be a mistake. Virtual teams are more productive. They are better for the environment. Still, we are humans. True relationships form when people are physically close and interact with no specific agenda, for example at the cliched water coolers. Offices will still have a role in post-covid world, if for no other reason. For small companies like Coseer with people spread in six time zones, the retreat idea has worked very well. Every six months everyone comes together at some destination for 3–4 days and engages on a lot of issues other than the day-to-day work. The cherished relationships formed at such events fuels camaraderie till the next time.

In the current crisis, organizations designed for in-office work are suddenly trying to collaborate remotely. Ideally, an organization must be designed for remote work. Independent thought, mature judgment and being a self-starter are traits that far more important to a virtual organization than a physical one. Another lesson we have learnt that employees with a social graph independent of their work tend to do much better in remote setting than people who rely on their co-workers for their social needs as well. While it is politically incorrect to make hiring decisions based on this criterion, this is a huge predictor of success in a remote team. So that’s the hidden lesson number six — if you have to push the remote culture beyond the current lock-down, you have to think again about the whole organization with a remote-first mindset.

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