How to Lead a Successful Virtual Team: Proven Advice From 10 International Companies

How to Lead a Successful Virtual Team: Proven Advice From 10 International Companies

Remote work: it’s almost all anyone who values productivity talks about these days. It’s not hard to see why — companies with over 700 employees prove day after day that it can lead to more innovation, more efficiency, and a better overall experience for both companies and team members. Turns out that less overhead and more flexibility is a winning combination.

That’s not to say remote work isn’t without its challenges. Just finding the best way to pay remote teams can take time. Like any traditional office setting, creating the right teams and environments for remote companies to flourish requires intentional and insightful planning. You need software that makes online collaboration simple, an easy way to track work progress, and platforms that encourage communication.

So what does it take to lead a successful virtual team? We asked the internet for their remote teams best practices, and these companies provided real-life examples. Their responses did not disappoint.

Remote teams: Scientifically proven to work

riccardo CERN atlas photoIf you’ve ever questioned how feasible and scalable remote work is, we have the answer — backed by science.

Here’s how Dr. Riccardo M. Bianchi, co-coordinator of the HEP Software Foundation and of the software team of the ATLAS Experiment at CERN, approaches remote collaboration with thousands of team members across the world.

“The ATLAS Experiment is the world’s largest scientific collaboration. About 5,000 people, of whom more than 2,000 physicists, affiliated with 138 institutes from 38 countries, remotely collaborate on a daily basis to the everyday maintenance and development of the experiment and of its complex software infrastructure.

The ATLAS Collaboration made Nobel Prize discoveries and produces hundreds of high-level scientific results each year. For us, efficient remote collaboration is the key to our success.”

Tip #1: Host meetings with a purpose, and the right software

“Regular remote meetings are organized to share ideas and to present advancements. Most of the groups organize weekly meetings; some groups or task forces working on sensitive or urgent topics organize daily meetings.”

In addition to frequency, using the right tools can improve outcomes for remote teams.

“For our regular remote meetings and large remote gatherings, we use Vidyo to handle a very large number of connections from users spread all over the world. Every day, tens of remote meetings are organized within the ATLAS Collaboration and it is very common having about 100 collaborators connected at the same time, with common peaks of several hundreds during large conferences, and exceptional peaks of thousands of connections from collaborators and journalists from all over the world when announcements of important discoveries are made.

In addition to Vidyo, we use Skype for smaller, informal remote meetings. Illustrations of a typical Summer day of remote meetings can be found here. In periods other than summertime, the number of remote meetings in the middle of the day is much larger!”

“The importance of regular remote meetings resides in the people feeling pushed to advance the task they are working on, and in the ability of timely discuss issues, problems or new ideas.”

Tip #2: Hire with intention

Gene Caballero, Co-Founder
GreenPal

Gene Caballero, Co-Founder GreenPal photo

“Before I started my entrepreneurial journey, I was a sales manager at a Fortune 50 tech company.

I think managing a remote employee is not the issue. I think hiring one that is self-motivated is.

Having managed over 50 remote employees, they all have the same traits: structured and self-motivated. Not being either one of those will result in a disaster because you have so many potential distractions when not working from an office.

Evaluation for remote employees is different but has to be quota-based. Using metrics like talk time and also lead referrals in Salesforce can also help evaluate the performance of your remote employees.

Tip #3: Know what to ask, and then trust

Christine Perkett, CEO & Founder
Perkett PR

Christine Perkett, CEO & Founder Perkett PR photo

Christine Perkett also mentioned the importance of hiring, and more specifically, knowing how to interview potential remote team members. Here’s the one question she asks in every interview.

“Working remotely isn’t for everyone. My favorite question [during interviews] was always, “Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur?” The question would throw some people off, like do I say yes, and does that make me seem like I’m not going to be focused on working for someone else? Or do I say no, and then not seem driven?

What I was looking for in an answer was yes, because I believe that someone with the entrepreneurial spirit will work hard no matter where they are, and find satisfaction in moving the company forward, not just being in an office and socializing.

Secondly, you have to learn to trust. Trust your own instincts and trust your people. That latter one goes back to my first piece of advice: if you don’t hire right, you won’t be able to trust your employees. If you do, there being remote will not be an issue.”

Tip #4: Establish accountability upfront

Dorene Rettas, Managing Director
Enterprise Mobility Exchange & Cyber Security Hub

dorene rettas photo

As a leader of two remote teams, Dorene Rettas has found accountability and communication to be key ingredients for success. Here are her proven methods for handling both:

  1. Set very clear guidelines. Are there specific hours of work? When should they be logged off?
  2. Make people accountable. Make sure KPIs are communicated regularly and they are being tracked.
  3. Weekly phone or video meetings with individual team members to check in. Video is great because it can really provide insight into how people are feeling about things as they communicate updates
  4. Communicate, communicate, communicate! You’re not passing one another by the water cooler for a quick catch up and you can easily become head down in your workload that you forget to just check-in. Make regular communication part of the workflow – build it into your calendar.

I find that those who are unable to work remotely weed themselves out quickly.

Tip #5: Make time for flow

Have you heard of the phrase flow state? Even if it doesn’t sound familiar, you’ve likely experience this period of intense focus where you’re able merge action and awareness and achieve intrinsic value. You may have also referred to this as “being in the zone.”

For productive types, flow is the ultimate goal. Being able to focus in and silence distractions is one of our favorite parts of working remotely. This post from Signal v. Noise summed up our thinking exactly:

“Effective remote CEOs understand how quality work happens: People need quiet, uninterrupted time to get things done. That’s how people get into a state of “flow,” which is crucial to thinking creatively or building something from scratch. Remote CEOs recognize this, respect this, and encourage this.”

Tip #6: Utilize different communication channels to resolve conflicts quickly

Patric Palm, CEO
Favro

Patric Palm is the head of a remote team that works in Sweden, Vietnam, the UK, and the US to create an agile workflow management application for enterprise. Here’s how he recommends resolving conflicts on remote teams.

“In these distributed teams, misunderstandings can happen all the time. Without body language, social nuances are lost. This can make it difficult for dispersed teammates to interpret feedback or resolve conflicts.

What I’ve learned to do, that works really well, is to just instantly pick up the phone and call when I sense that something might be going wrong. At Favro, we have no internal email, only Slack for messaging and Favro for planning and management. Slack has built-in call and video functionalities that are very easy to use. When I feel that something’s gone wrong, or I feel the other person isn’t getting me, I just push the call button.

But not all aspects of written interaction are bad. If there is a language barrier, or if you are managing someone who is more of an introvert, written communication can actually be more comfortable and effective.

Managers of distributed teams should be sure to make time to actually meet their teams, and to try and see them on a regular basis. If you feel that you know the person on the other side, that you have some trust built up, it’s much easier to resolve the conflicts you have online, and it feels natural to push the button to call them.”

Tip #7: Remote teams + daily standups = success

Stephen Hart, CEO
Cardswitcher

Here is his take on managing a remote team:

“My favorite piece of advice for managing a remote team comes from agile, and is called the daily standup. A standup takes place at the start of the working day and all participants answer three simple questions.

1) What did you do yesterday?
2) What will you do today?
3) What impediments or problems do you have?

For most teams, the daily standup can be 10 or 15 minutes so it’s not a massive time commitment. With Slack, Skype and Hangouts, it’s super easy to schedule with remote teams as long as they are all in roughly the same time zone. If you’re working with a global team, it’s obviously a bit trickier, but you can still do it with a dedicated Slack channel or form.

Just have everyone answer the three questions when they start work and distribute it to the team at the same time every day.”

Tip #8: Go remote in competitive markets

Ian McClarty, President & CEO
PhoenixNAP Global IT Solutions

ian phoenix nap IT solutions photo“Remote teams are great when markets are hard to staff for, or are highly competitive. Leveraging remote teams has plenty of positives, but on the management side, we have found we have to subsidize by other means to make sure we create a performance environment.

Remote teams take a lot more meeting time in one’s calendar, and a lot more planning up front has to go into the interaction and direction. Implementation of non-subjective and goal-oriented programs are also a necessity.

Remote teams benefit from as much video conferencing as you can do as well, there is no substitute for facetime but traveling back and forth between locations is a significant corporate burden. Some face-to-face is needed, but daily meetings should be handled by video conferencing.”

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Tip #9: Celebrate wins as a team

Jessica Watson, President & Creative Director
Points North Design Studio

jessica watson points north design photo

Just because your team isn’t just a hallway away doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make time to support each other and celebrate good news. Jessica Watson keeps her remote creative agency connected by prioritizing celebrations.

“I like to mail my team something just because, for end-of-the-year holidays, and also for their birthday (a card, a book, a trinket I think they would like).

I also know that some team members like certain topics, and I will share articles on the latest trend for that topic in our Skype chat, which helps us to stay on top of new things and take our conversations beyond work. This little bit of extra gives us more of a connected, family feel.”

Tip #10: Setting expectations is everything

Alexander Winston, Co-Founder and Managing Director
PPC Protect

“When it comes to managing remote workers, the most important thing is to make sure they can communicate with you quickly, and they know what they are meant to be doing.

We use Slack for its real-time messaging and voice chat features, which is ten times better than old-fashioned emails. It also lets you know if the user is online and available. This is very important when working in different time zones.

The other software we like to use that helps us manage projects is a collaboration software called Teamwork. Using this we can assign tasks to members on our team, set reminders, and give everyone a nice overview of their outstanding tasks.

By combining both Slack and Teamwork it allows great communication between other remote workers, which is often the most difficult thing when managing remote staff.”

What’s your best advice for remote team success?

Weekly calls? Slack challenges? Let us know in the comments.

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