Virtual collaboration isn’t a trend – it’s here to stay.
Let’s take remote work, for instance. Remote work has seen a 44% growth in the last five years alone – and for good reason. More and more, companies have come to realize that employees don’t need to physically be in the office to make an impact. Employees are taking notice too, finding that it’s easier to have a good work-life balance without commuting to and from a physical office.
That said, remote work is only able to go mainstream thanks to the virtual collaboration tools available today that allow people from all around the world to connect effortlessly and instantaneously.
In a virtual collaboration arrangement, employers get to reap the benefits of cost savings and the increased productivity of remote workers. Research has found, for example, that American Express employees that worked from home were 43% more productive, while JD Edwards teleworkers were up to 25% more productive than their in-office colleagues.
Given these pros of virtual collaboration, let’s take a deeper dive into the topic to both define it and to identify actionable ways your company can reap the benefits of such an arrangement.
Why should businesses master virtual collaboration?
Collaborating remotely costs less, as companies can use these arrangements to reduce or erase overhead costs such as rent, utilities, and internet costs. There’s no need for fancy furniture or office art either. All those costs add up, and when you’re collaborating remotely instead, you can invest those resources back into the business.
Mastering virtual collaboration also means streamlining operations. Rolling out appropriate collaboration tools and systems can minimize manual admin tasks, giving team members the bandwidth to focus on more meaningful work that creates deliverables, wows customers, and drives greater revenue.
A virtual work environment can also be a great catalyst for attracting top talent. Since your company isn’t confined to your local pool of potential applicants, you can cast a wider net and fill roles with ideal candidates, instead of settling for those in close proximity.
What is virtual collaboration?
Virtual collaboration is working jointly toward a common goal using digital resources as the primary means of cooperation. Without physical interaction, distributed teams leverage digital tools that allow for real-time communication, collaboration, and file-sharing.
4 ways to successfully collaborate virtually
Successful virtual collaboration grows out of effective habits. Team members demand guidance and structure, so having a clear onboarding plan, a regular cadence of meeting times, and the right tools in place can make all the difference in the outcomes associated with your digital collaboration efforts.
1. Have regular check-ins with teammates and direct reports
Weekly one-on-ones are essential to keeping your workforce happy and productive. For direct reports, consider one-on-one time “their time” to talk about whatever they want. If they want to dive into the nitty-gritty details of a project or vent about a client’s unrealistic expectations, it’s best to sit back and lend an empathetic ear.
With virtual teams, it’s especially important to defend this time and avoid canceling or rescheduling. Remember, remote team members don’t have the luxury of seeing you around the office for sidebar conversations.
Since one-on-one time is your team’s time, it’s imperative you have regularly scheduled meetings to broadcast announcements outside of these sessions. For projects, it’s best to give a set time and date for meetings and a clear meeting agenda so that people can prepare in advance. For one-off messages that are time-sensitive, you can create “virtual stand-ups” which give you a platform and five to 15 minutes to brief your team together.
Maximizing the effectiveness of your virtual meetings comes down to taking detailed notes, which can help you remember to circle back on essential conversations or refresh your memory before future virtual collaboration sessions.
Take a cue from Bill Clinton, who was known for being good at taking detailed notes. After meeting someone new, Clinton would often handwrite conversation details on note cards and file them for later. Then, he reviewed his cards regularly in order to make connections, reach out with personal follow-ups, or just let people know he was thinking about them.
Some attribute Clinton’s political success in part to this type of meticulous note-taking. On a smaller scale, you can leverage the strategy with your virtual team to build tighter bonds and make meetings more productive.
Keep a notebook handy, and write down interesting details about your meetings, attendees’ lives, their work habits, what’s bothering them, what they’re excited about, and their goals. Fill out notes during the call and give those notes a quick glance before your next encounter to ensure important details aren’t missed.
2. Share important documents and give each person access
Leverage project management software or file management tools to keep everyone on the same page – literally. From day one, all new hires should have access to your chosen software and have the correct permission set so that they don’t hit roadblocks when they’re mid-project.
For maximum collaboration, create an onboarding program that lays out exactly how the document sharing tool works and, more importantly, how your company specifically uses it. This one step alone can save a lot of headaches and cut down on back-and-forth tremendously. If you’re leveraging templates, you should also ensure they’re locked so that no one can overwrite them by mistake.
3. Keep finite start and end work times as you would in the office
Working virtually can lead to slacking or a tendency to work overtime, as team members who work from home have a tendency to blur the lines between their work and personal lives. To aid your team, push hard on maintaining a work-life balance. Set specific working hours in stone from the beginning and enforce them.
With remote teams, it can be challenging to navigate time zone differences, so finding a happy medium of core hours during which people are expected to be online and available can be a great compromise.
That said, depending on your company’s structure or deliverables, you may not need to define strict “working” hours. Employees may prefer to be judged on performance and may work better on what Paul Graham refers to as a Maker’s Schedule where the day is blocked in increments of 3-4 uninterrupted hours for maximum productivity.
Yet, even in this case, core hours can still be set to make sure people are available via messaging tools in order to keep active projects flowing. It’s also wise to set parameters for average response times, such as “All emails should be responded to within 24 hours and all messages within four hours.”
4. Host virtual get-togethers for brainstorming and communication
The overall effectiveness of your virtual collaboration initiatives stems from your team’s ability to mesh with each other. Every video chat doesn’t have to be purpose-driven or follow a formal meeting structure. You can also use your sessions to brainstorm project hang-ups, troubleshoot inefficient processes, or simply get to know each other.
Virtual “happy hours” are all the rage, now that video conferencing software is within reach of companies of all sizes. Carve out time every week or two to sync up as a team and discuss non-work items. Bring a beverage of choice and make it fun with icebreaker games.
As a leader, you’ll want to join in on the fun with these virtual get-togethers but encourage your team to host their own without a management presence as well. Doing so will take some pressure off the sessions, allowing team members to let loose and talk about topics they may avoid when leadership is in earshot.
5 tools for optimum virtual collaboration
Although a tremendous number of virtual collaboration tools exist, they aren’t all appropriate for every company. Look not just for those that offer cutting-edge technology, but those that are also intuitive enough that your team will want to use them. Here are five specific tool types you’ll want to have in your arsenal for effective virtual collaboration.
1. Project management tools
A whopping 77% of high-performing projects use project management software. These suites are an absolute necessity for virtual collaboration, often acting as all-in-one systems with features such as file management, team messaging, performance reporting, and shared workspaces to track task completion.
Having a shared workspace that everyone works out of is invaluable to mastering virtual collaboration. However, it’s only as useful as the people who use it and keep it up-to-date. It’s best to get buy-in early and enforce regular updates so the data doesn’t grow stale and your staff begin to not trust what’s stored there.
2. File management tools
Reducing admin work and back-and-forth emails with a proper file management tool is worth every cent. According to a Project.co communication report, 74% of people often lose files that have been shared with others.
In a virtual collaboration environment, it’s imperative that the software you use be cloud-based so that everyone can safely access the files they need from anywhere in the world (bonus points if your chosen file management tool connects to any other tools you use).
The latest and greatest file management tools include features such as real-time notifications for file changes, timestamps for updates, and scalable storage capacity — all of which keep your virtual team efficient, organized, and fueled for growth.
3. Video meeting tools
These days, more and more companies are turning to enterprise video communication tools to bring their distributed teams together. Effective virtual collaboration is nearly impossible without a regular check-in cadence. Colleagues and direct reports need face time via video conferencing to ask questions, clarify project details, request feedback on deliverables, and build much-needed rapport.
Many video conferencing tools, such as Teams which is included with Microsoft 365, offer not only HD video and audio but built-in collaboration tools like screen sharing, co-annotating, and integrated chat. Further, most modern video meeting tools seamlessly integrate with popular calendar systems, making syncing up across teams as easy as a click of a button.
Many companies are also turning to video interviews so they can remotely connect with candidates. Video screening of candidates with the right interview scripts can streamline the interviewing process, save resources, and likely bring you similar results as an in-person meeting would.
4. Scheduling tools
Scheduling meetings can be a real pain point for organizations, due to conflicting calendars and time zone differences.
Thankfully, several SaaS companies have filled the gap with scheduling tools that take the guesswork out of the equation, virtually eliminating back-and-forth. With these tools, scheduling meetings becomes as simple as sharing your personal calendar link and allowing contacts to see your availability and grab a slot for themselves.
5. Chat tools
Finally, the ability to exchange messages in real-time represents a critical productivity priority for virtual teams. Whether it’s one-on-one chats, group chats, project-based channels, or company-wide announcements, you can’t beat the convenience and efficiency of a comprehensive business chat tool. Companies that use a dedicated internal communication platform may see a 30% boost in employee engagement.
Many such systems now offer audio and video call integrations and can extend their reach through third-party app integrations with file-sharing tools, project management tools, and CRM software programs.
Bringing it all together
Mastering virtual collaboration comes down to building a stellar team and equipping them with efficient processes and the best tools available. But as straightforward as that equation sounds, it’s not an overnight process. It takes time and energy to attract the right talent, implement the right systems, and streamline your operations. Yet, make no mistake: the added effort is worth every penny and every drop of sweat.
Research from Owl Labs suggests that companies who support remote work have, on average, a 25% lower employee turnover than companies that don’t. The simple act of empowering your virtual team to collaborate more effectively can have an immensely impactful effect on your organization that will pay dividends in the long-run.
Discover a multitude of team collaboration software options that you can use to boost overall productivity and success for remote/virtual, hybrid, and distributed workforces.
Jamie Davidson is the Marketing Communications Manager for Vast Conference, a meeting solution providing HD-audio, video conferencing with screen sharing, and a mobile app to easily and reliably get work done.