How to create inclusive virtual teams

Firms had to implement remote working at breakneck speed, says Teresa Boughey, but now they must consider how to communicate, collaborate and bond online

In an ideal world, organisations would have the chance to approach establishing virtual teams carefully – hiring or developing the right number of people, using psychometric tools to understand their response to virtual teamwork and ensuring the appropriate design and allocation of work. But the rulebook appears to have gone out the window in 2020 and many organisations have had to make a rapid shift towards remote working. The key consideration has been which technology platform can be implemented at breakneck speed. 

This approach may have meant survival for some. However, it’s now time to stabilise and cement these foundations. Remote working is likely to continue for some until at least the end of 2020, and for many others it’s the new norm and here to stay.   

When virtual teams are set up for success they can bring many benefits. But if you don't make adjustments to leadership and communication styles and develop agreed ways of working, a virtual team can quickly become dysfunctional and productivity can drop. 

Here are three practical tips on creating inclusive virtual teams:

Get to know your team 

We are all unique, so it's important to recognise how best to manage and motivate each individual team member. Psychometric profiling tools can help identify strengths and development areas, as well as the ideal working environment.  

Some people are energised by having their colleagues around them. They are at their best when they can bounce ideas off other people and get a real buzz when working with others.  Prolonged periods of time where this level of spontaneous, in-person interaction is limited (or non-existent) may result in a feeling of isolation, a lack of belonging and may ultimately affect personal wellbeing.  

Conversely, those who value quiet and reflective time may be relishing this opportunity to work alone without interruptions. Being equipped with this knowledge means everyone can be empowered to play to their strengths, team members can learn how to communicate effectively, and collectively teams can identify ways to get the best out of each other to enhance team effectiveness. 

Make communication inclusive 

Regular, clear and consistent communication can help team members feel informed. While it’s important to discuss ‘tasks’, it’s crucial to focus on the human side or work. Words (the literal meaning) account for 7 per cent of the overall message when communicating, tone of voice accounts for 38 per cent and body language accounts for 55 per cent. So many of these cues can be limited, even missed, during virtual interactions. Create an environment where all team members feel genuinely listened to rather than talked at. Enable everyone to have a voice by creating an environment where everyone feels comfortable to speak up, share their views, offer feedback and constructively challenge. A way to achieve this is by adopting a sign-in process at the start of every meeting where everyone is encouraged to share what’s going on for them in the three key areas of work, personal life and wellbeing (and give a score out of 10).

It is important to recognise that everyone likes to be communicated with differently. Ask team members how they prefer to communicate, via which technology and at what frequency, and flex your communication style to support them. 

Trust your team

Just because you can’t see your team members doesn’t mean they’re not working. Over the past few months I’ve heard people share stories about being exhausted because they have to be ‘present’ on so many virtual meetings that it’s impossible to do any work. Agree and set ground rules that all team members are committed to. Recognise that remote working may mean working across different time zones, or juggling career responsibilities. And be clear on expectations, including email response times and project priorities. 

Make sure tasks and objectives have been clearly understood. Be clear on who is doing what and ask each person to play back what they understand they need to do and by when.  

Check what extra help is needed. Is workload distribution balanced, is everyone playing to their strengths and can team members collaborate for a better result? If, as their manager, you need to be kept informed of progress, then clearly state how you need to be kept up to date and agree these milestones. Focus on outputs and not presenteeism – nothing kills productively faster than micromanagement.    

Finally, share and celebrate successes. These can be the attainment of project milestones, and team or personal achievements. Sharing success collectively is another way for everyone to recognise individual talents, which can build and strengthen relationships. 

Remote working is set to stay. The benefits can be enormous for those companies that get it right and build inclusive work environments with a sense of belonging. It takes dedication, effort and continued inclusive leadership – but it’s worth it.

Teresa Boughey is CEO of Jungle HR and founder of Inclusion 247