A Blueprint for Building a Powerful Virtual Team Culture

A few months ago I brought on a co-CEO to help me manage and scale Workplace Collaborations.

He’s a serial entrepreneur and good friend of mine that believes in the vision of creating a collaborative world where every business leader embodies transparency, authenticity, empathy, and safety to bring forth their vision of their business. Only problem? He is located in Juneau, Alaska while I am in Los Angeles, California. The physical separation is already causing some challenges:

  1. Keeping our energy levels consistent
  2. Staying up to date with what each person is doing
  3. Managing expectations and goals
  4. Staying in contact between meetings
  5. And keeping everything fun and engaging

To be a high-performing, high-impact team, clarity around these challenges is essential.

Setting up proper processes, using platforms like Slack, Notion and Zoom, and being intentional, we move into clarity and give our team the momentum it needs to sustain its efforts long-term.

Much like my clients that have to manage their remote teams, ensuring our team dynamic and culture stay highly collaborative as we scale is extremely important to us.

The Challenge & Benefits of Virtual Teams

“I like the people I work with. Someday I will perhaps meet them.” — Unknown

2012 study called Virtual Teams Survey Report — Challenges of Working in Virtual Teams found that employees have the following challenges when working in virtual teams:

  1. Little face-to-face interactions affects team cohesion and trust
  2. Managing multiple time zones increases stress
  3. Team priorities and goals can get lost in virtual settings
  4. Virtual communication can be difficult when technology problems occur
  5. Misunderstandings can occur from cultural and/or language issues

Yet companies also report significant advantages, including:

  1. Increase of $2,000 in financial savings per year per virtual employee
  2. Increased productivity that allows for increased collaboration
  3. Higher retention rates of employees
  4. A bigger pool of employees to recruit from.

Which means that when creating a powerful virtual team, you need to balance both the challenges and benefits with one another into a coherent team structure that recognizes each.

The Blueprint for Creating a Powerful Virtual Team Culture

1. Get clear on the WHY

Every task your employee does should relate back to the company mission and the team goals and objectives. Look to Starbucks for inspiration.

Their mission is, “To inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” A barista should understand and feel why every cup of coffee they make or warm smile they give connects back to that mission. If they don’t, they do not believe in the ‘why’ of the business. If they can, they’re connected.

For virtual environments, anchoring teams around the WHY keeps them motivated beyond the limited face-to-face interactions they will undoubtedly have.

When disagreements pop up, you are deciding next steps, are strategizing, or even thinking of new ideas, a clear WHY will bring clarity to the chaos. It gives everyone a focus and makes virtual interactions easier, especially when you can’t read people’s body language or energy. As a result you will know where to put the team’s energy.

2. Set session agendas

Unstructured meetings are a waste of time.

Session agendas keeps things focused around the WHY.

Use this team agenda template or create one of your own via Trello, Notion, or any other project management system.

The point is to keep a running tab of action items, meeting minutes, and goals, because let’s be real people forget.

Best practice: send out the meeting agenda 24-hours in advance of the meeting and give team members an opportunity to contribute to the agenda.

3. Include activities that stimulate "real-ness"

This is especially true if most of your workforce is remote.

My co-CEO and I have instituted a number of best practices to keep things fun and engaging, despite not being in the same physical location. That includes having virtual happy hours and movie nights after a long week or sharing stories before the start of meetings to talk about what’s going on for us personally.

Called the “Inspire Me Now!” Hack, for the first 5–10 minutes of a virtual meeting, each of us says a story (either personal or anecdotal) that has inspired the heck out of us. We attempt to do this early on in the week.

We make sure to relate the story back to our company values, vision, and mission. The story format also makes it so that the person listening can feel the inspiration, resulting in some deep realness, and the one telling the story remembers why he is doing what he is doing.

It’s brought a level of humanity back to our work that I’m incredibly grateful for. We’re no longer just some heads on a screen but rather we are real people experiencing real things.

The same can apply for you. Create activities that stimulate realness and get people to humanize one another.

4. Don’t over-use technology/software platforms

Too much technology can be a bad thing for virtual teams.

From Trello, Slack, Asana, Notion, Dropbox, Google Drive, etc., you can easily overwhelm your team through the various platforms meant to make work easier.

Best practice: don’t use more than 3 software platforms to do project management or communication.

Once you decide which platforms best fit the needs of your team, stay consistent. Always alert team members to changes ahead of time so surprises don’t pop up.

5. Create a virtual water cooler & over-communicate

Dedicate a Slack channel to being the team "water cooler".

Make this a casual space where employees can spitball ideas, joke around, or send each other gifs & relevant articles.

The success of creating a strong virtual team relies on centralizing communication: a place where everyone can be in the know about everything affecting the team.

How you centralize communication, the amount of transparency, and how you communicate will be the foundation of your virtual team culture. This means if you’re using Slack to centralize communication, pin group norms so when a new team member is on-boarded, they have a virtual pin of guidelines that keeps everyone in the know.

For sample group norms to follow, check out this Google Doc.

Disagreements, poor productivity, and increased stress occur in the virtual space because team members can't "feel" the other person. Team members start talking virtually behind each other's backs, affecting team cohesion, while some people are in the know while others are not. Getting as clear as possible as to what is being said, and to whom, will make it so that communication issues don't pop up later down the road.

6. Create intentional feedback loops

Keeping virtual teams high-performing requires a culture of feedback.

Nothing is too small to be left unsaid.

Call out what is working, what isn’t, and how to improve the virtual environment when you have people on a virtual call or set time to do this intentionally.

That’s really what makes a team invincible: the ability to put all their cards on the table without fear of rejection, ridicule, or hurt feelings.

When this level of trust and candor is created, virtual teams are just as good as in-person teams.

Write out a feedback process that standardizes the practice so everyone knows how to get from point A to point B. Here's a sample process:

  1. Person giving feedback writes up a description of the issue, observations, and the impact that the person’s behavior is having on the team in a Google Doc
  2. Person emails the team member or manager to discuss the feedback
  3. Person shares the Google Doc
  4. Meeting is scheduled to discuss the Google Doc
  5. Everyone stays at the meeting till a resolution of some kind results.

If you’re a startup, and you use the Stand Up model to have team meetings and updates, institute this virtually as well.

Beyond this process, make formal feedback sessions a monthly and quarterly affair so team members know they can expect regular review sessions of their work too.

Want to learn how to give/receive feedback - sign up for free course:

7. Consider different time zones & establish etiquette rules

Last but not least, remember team members will be located in different time zones.

Be considerate of this as people have different levels of energy during different time periods of the day.

Publish guidelines for webcam etiquette too.

  • Do team members need to dress up?
  • Do they have to have their video cameras on every time?
  • Do they have to have an office where no background noise is present?

Get clear on these things early on. Because when technology problems surface (and they will!), these little things can have a way of creating stories that result in people getting resentful with each other.

And that's what you're trying to avoid when creating powerful virtual team cultures.

Bottom line: virtual teams & de-centralized companies have a lot of challenges ahead of them but creating a powerful virtual team culture is possible. Technology helps connect, but you need to make that connection feel real so everyone feels like they’re apart of something bigger than when the screen time goes away. Do that by making it intentional and instituting best practices where everyone can bring their best self forward.