Virtual Collaboration: Overcoming Remote Team Challenges

virtual collaboration
by
Daniel Weiss

With businesses realizing the benefits of remote work, implementing a strong virtual collaboration environment has become an imperative. Managers need to make the necessary adjustments to improve productivity and increase employee happiness. To achieve these goals, a business requires stronger virtual collaboration strategies that are both easily implemented and sustainable.

What is virtual collaboration?

Virtual collaboration is the act of using digital communication tools to ideate, critique, or complete a project with colleagues, despite working in different locations or at different times. Virtual collaboration is improved when the appropriate tools are implemented and a culture of teamwork is promoted.

The problem is, video conferencing, slack messages, and remote happy hours can reinforce bad practices just as much as they promote good ones. Finding the right remote collaboration tools is important, but teaching your distributed team the best practices and processes within your existing virtual collaboration tech stack will make for better virtual meetings, faster project completion, and more efficient operations.

Why virtual collaboration matters

Managers and team leaders might be wary of remote work because of a perceived lack of accountability. It’s true, when you’re in an office setting, you can see when employees are taking breaks, how long their lunch hour lasts, and whether they’re engaged with their work. The problem with this thinking is it doesn’t account for variations in individual working styles or preferences. Much like in the office, a manager can’t monitor each team member 24/7. This also holds true in remote settings. However, with the right virtual collaboration strategy, managers will be able to give their teams the space to find their own balance for productivity.

But while individual work from home routines will vary, teams function best when they’re collaborating regularly and communicating effectively. Additionally, in a professional environment where sales, support, marketing, and even administrative teams seem to be becoming more specialized it’s important that each team member have greater visibility into what’s going on around them, so everyone knows what’s theirs to contribute.

Virtual collaboration flourishes under the premise of visibility. When assets are shared and schedules are known, remote coworkers can respect each others’ time while moving their own projects along with ease.

Essentially, when processes are established, workflows are well documented, and communication channels are decluttered (and open), each employee can perform at their highest level to produce their best work, which will in turn complement the overarching team goals, while also providing much needed peace of mind to managers.

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However, there are a few barriers that prevent virtual teams from collaborating effectively. Some stem from issues inherent in all office environments, but some are unique to the challenges presented by a distributed team.

Common challenges and pitfalls of virtual collaboration

In order to find the tools and processes that enable productive virtual collaboration, it’s important to recognize the challenges remote workers must contend with on a daily basis. Essentially, in a workplace that relies entirely on internet connection and periodic updates, managers need to keep an eye on the following areas and course correct for issues when they arise to ensure virtual collaboration practices are always finely tuned.

Availability/timezones. When working in a virtual office, employees can’t see when their coworkers are on calls or at their desks. There’s no indication of whether a meeting is a simple matter that can be rescheduled, or they’re on the call with the CEO and other key stakeholders. Also, remote workers are often distributed over a wide geographic area. While this allows employers to search a larger talent pool, it usually means compromises will need to be made on one end or the other to better accommodate timezones.

Internet connection. Video conferencing calls have become the gold standard of virtual collaboration tools because of their ability to connect people in a digital environment. However, router bandwidth and meetings en-route can reveal pitfalls. Managers should use collaboration tools that still add value, even if internet connection isn’t the strongest.

Delayed updates. Especially in sales and support, remote workers need to be ready when the zero-moment arrives. This could mean a prospect emails back saying they’re interested but only available for a demo within the hour, or perhaps a customer is experiencing issues impacting their bottom line. Remote team managers should have plans in place to avoid delays in action.

Communication vs distraction. When working in a physical office, it’s advantageous that all workers need to do is wave and they’ll have a colleague’s attention. This, however, can also be a disadvantage — small disruptions can ruin a state of flow, and therefore productivity. 

Slack messages and inundated email inboxes are similar. These tools enable instant communication, but they also serve as a huge distraction. Managers need to balance instant feedback with their employees’ workflows, whether this means having access to shared calendars, encouraging status-updates on Slack, or blocking off time for “heads-down” work.

Hands on support. When internal issues arise, troubleshooting is easier in an on-premises work environment. Remote team managers need to develop ways of addressing their employees’ questions in a timely and efficient manner. This may involve implementing multiple means of internal communication.

Isolation. Remote teams need to take added measures to prevent social isolation. Various remote team building activities should be regularly scheduled to promote team bonding and collaboration. Furthermore, Zoom fatigue is a real phenomenon — feeling tired, anxious, and even more lonely after a video call. As of now, there isn’t a long term replacement for in-the-flesh, face-to-face interaction. regular breaks, like stepping out to a local coffee shop or taking walks, should also be encouraged.

Facilitating virtual collaboration with teams as a manager

Promoting collaboration amongst a remote team requires two main touchpoints: schedule alignment and communication tools.

But finding the right tools and making sure your team members are available (and willing) to collaborate virtually requires forethought. 

  • Do you  have the right cloud-based tools that allow for visibility into each others’ schedules?
  • Are you facilitating an environment in which your team members want to help each other and are able to do so easily – (i.e. teamwork)
  • Do the tools you use make virtual collaboration easy across time zones and varying levels of internet connectivity?

To make sure ideas and tasks are shared productively, it’s important to address all three points.

Best virtual collaboration tools

Virtual collaboration depends, first-and-foremost, on communication. The tools you use will promote clear and effective messaging between team members. These are some of the virtual collaboration tools we recommend for remote teams, especially those working in sales and support functions.

Slack

Slack is a direct message, group message, and communication management tool well-suited to virtual collaboration. Each department can create its own channel, and direct messages are easily organized. Slack lets you drag-and-drop files, bookmark messages, and pin documents for storage and future reference. Many companies prefer Slack over traditional email due to its quick nature. Sometimes, a short, casual message is more efficient — not to mention more user friendly.

For remote teams, Slack can serve as a “water cooler” for virtual collaboration, letting team members bond or blow off steam. It gives your remote team members a hub where they can gather for both professional and team-building purposes.

Zoom

Zoom is far and away the most popular video conferencing app at the moment. HD video and other vital features like screen sharing, messaging, and call recording make it an easy choice for organizations in need of an easy and scalable video solution.

Part of what makes Zoom appealing is its accessibility. That is to say, only the meeting host needs to download the app. Other participants can join simply by visiting the meeting link from an internet connected device.

Zoom also enables virtual collaboration during meetings. It’s simple to view multiple participants’ screens and whiteboard using annotation tools. Zoom has innovated more than competitors in the video conferencing market..

Github

Github is the go-to tool for code sharing and virtual collaboration amongst developers. Your company’s product and engineering team can collect feedback, comment on each other’s projects, and work on larger missions collaboratively. Github also features a number of enviable integrations, like Slack, which make changes and suggestions during code reviews and pair programming easier to track.

Monday

Accurate and up-to-date project management is a cornerstone of good virtual collaboration. While Monday describes itself as a workplace operating system, it’s more appropriately known as a project management platform that helps sales, support, product, and financial teams manage and execute tasks and initiatives.

Monday’s intuitive UI and automation capabilities are perfect for modern companies looking to add organization to their virtual collaboration. Like Aircall, Monday integrates with dozens of the most popular workplace productivity apps.

Most remote teams will find it nearly impossible to operate with 100% efficiency without some kind of project management scheme in place. In terms of competitors, remote team managers also find Trello and Asana to be reliable virtual collaboration tools.

Intercom

Intercom is an on site messaging app that enables businesses to stay in touch with their customers. Its primary function is facilitating the transition from website visitor to paying customer. However, Intercom has many useful virtual collaboration features that help teams work remotely.

Intercom can keep track of every customer interaction in a unified dashboard, and the shared inbox lets your team all stay on the same page while taking notes and annotating client files. Managers can also assign follow-up tasks. Intercom integrates with many other tools, allowing remote employees to monitor client engagement as a cohesive team.

Front

Front solves the problem of emailing about email. By combining help desk tickets with internal email, messages, and apps, customer service reps who use Front benefit from a centralized and intuitive virtual collaboration hub.

For teams that leverage Front’s integration with Aircall, this includes the ability to make and receive calls, and access crucial contextual information about them all in one place.

With relevant information about customers readily available, your agents can forget busy work in favor of meaningful conversations—and they’ll accelerate virtual collaboration in the process.

Cloud productivity software for virtual collaboration

External and internal communications are a keystone of good virtual collaboration, but your team still needs to create assets in a shared environment. For this reason, cloud document applications, like G-Suite and Office 365 are essential for collaborative remote teams.

Shared word documents can be easily written and edited by multiple team members, and presentations are accessible for everyone to view or contribute to.

Furthermore, all changes can be tracked and implemented in real-time, increasing efficiency and visibility for team-based projects.

Making virtual collaboration part of your company culture

The right tools, processes, and structure will help your team collaborate on a day-to-day basis, but the most productive and cohesive teams have collaboration baked into their very fabric.

That is to say, collaboration between teammates is inherent because they’re ready and willing to help each other out. Instead of feeling obligated to work together, they actively want to do so.

While onsite offices are conducive to forming strong working relationships at the lunch table or through “water cooler” talk, virtual offices require a bit more forethought. One tried-and-tested way to establish this type of connection between coworkers is to engage in various types of remote team building activities.

These activities will range from virtual happy hours to virtual game room experiences. Perhaps your team has some hidden talents they’re eager to share over a zoom call? Maybe your team leans toward literary pursuits, and the thought of a monthly book club is more your style.

Stronger connections outside of work make for smarter and better collaboration when it counts. If you’re looking for new and inventive ways to bring your remote team together, feel free to get inspired with these remote team building activities we’ve brainstormed.

Virtual collaboration best practices

Finding your team’s best recipe for virtual collaboration is a moving target. There are however a few main principles that should be acknowledged in order to move closer to your goals.

  1. Align expectations for virtual collaboration. This can take many forms, but remote workers should expect to have regular 1-on-1s and brainstorming sessions via Zoom, conference call, or Slack. Also, team members can promote virtual collaboration by making their project timelines visible and updating progress regularly, using a shared tracking app or project management tool.
  2. Find the best cloud-based tools for virtual collaboration. The foundations of good virtual collaboration are built on project tracking and effective communication. We’ve listed a few popular project management tools that facilitate virtual collaboration above, but even something as simple as a shared spreadsheet provides valuable insights. And to that last point — shared workspaces using cloud-based office tools, like G-Suite and Office 365, are incredibly important to virtual collaboration, when working from the same conference table isn’t possible.
  3. Use team-building to promote virtual collaboration. You can buy all the subscription software in the world, but if your remote team doesn’t feel comfortable working together or sharing ideas, virtual collaboration will suffer. Team building activities can take many forms — virtual happy hours, lunch and learns, game nights, etc. — but the main takeaway is to find a venue where your team can get to know each other as individuals. When your team wants to work for each other, their collaborative effort will be stronger.
  4. Give your team space to work independently. Virtual collaboration is a two-part process. First you need to work together to create roadmaps and project expectations. Then, however, you need to execute. At first, remote team managers may be uncomfortable giving their employees the freedom to find their own best practices and working-schedules, but this break from a defined-schedule is part of what makes remote work so appealing (and effective). Timebox meetings and update reports so your distributed team can find a state of flow and complete their work admirably!
  5. Keep an eye on employee wellness. In remote work environments, virtual collaboration shouldn’t strictly be limited to business-related subjects. It’s important for remote managers to monitor the mental health of their employees. Working from home has the potential to reduce stress, but is not a vacation, and remote workers can suffer from burnout as much as their onsite counterparts. Encouraging regular breaks, in-person interactions, and time off should be part of every team’s virtual collaboration blueprint, whether in a physical or virtual office.

Virtual collaboration is an iterative process

Remote team managers need to understand their distributed teams to understand what type of solution will promote the best collaborative results. Of course, finding the right collaboration tools is a good place to start, but fostering an environment where coworkers genuinely care about each other’s success results in the best teamwork.

Trial and error will naturally occur. If happy hour calls are poorly attended, try switching things up and adding a theme. If process management tools aren’t significantly contributing to project completion, it may be time to explore other options. 

Like most areas of team management, collaboration is an imprecise goal. To help you run your virtual team better, check out some of the other resources we’ve compiled in our remote work toolkit.

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