Even before COVID-19, remote work was a concept many of us idealized. According to Buffer’s 2019 study (yes, pre-Covid!), a staggering 99% of employees reported wanting to work from home at least some of the time.

Regardless of whether you think working from home is a trend or not, it’s here to stay, at least in part. Successfully managing remote teams and fostering team-building online are significant challenges, but navigating them is essential for company and team success.

Here are 5 strategies to build and effectively manage outstanding virtual teams:

1. Provide Great Onboarding

Despite its importance, onboarding is often severely neglected. One Gallup poll found that only 12% of employees “strongly agree” that their company onboards new employees well.

This lack of attention to onboarding is unfortunate given that companies with strong onboarding programs experienced:

  • Higher time-to-productivity ratios (62%)
  • Higher employee engagement (54%)
  • Higher rate of “successful assimilation” of new workers into existing culture (66%)

While you could perhaps get away with neglecting to onboard when everyone was together in the office, virtual teams further emphasize the need for appropriate onboarding. It’s much more challenging for new hires to get help and collaborate with teammates virtually.

Here’s how to provide an A+ onboarding experience for your new virtual hire:

  1. Focus on relationships. Do your best to integrate new hires with existing teammates right away. Encourage existing team members to set up coffee chats, invite new hires to your physical office space (if possible), and invite them to socials.
  2. Provide clear documentation. Onboarding materials should be stored in a shared place and be documented thoroughly. This documentation should include company policies, points of contact, who’s who, information on various workflows, and anything else you can think of.
  3. Designate a point of contact. New hires will have questions. Make it clear that questions are welcomed and designate one or more central contacts the new hire can reach out to for answers.

Onboarding new developers to your virtual teams? Check out our comprehensive guide.

virtual teams meet from around the world
Don't let team building events feel like another meeting

2. Set Clear Workflows and Documentation

When teams are together in person, it’s easy for coworkers to talk amongst themselves or quickly catch up on the information they missed via lunch with a colleague. With virtual teams, that’s not so easy.

A lack of workflows and documentation can lead to miscommunications and stagnating projects. To combat this:

  • Take clear meeting notes at every gathering
  • Document how you want all projects to run including who is to work on each project, at what stage, and with what deliverables
  • Write out how various company software and tools work and provide information for troubleshooting

Focusing on proper documentation and workflows helps all the time, but it’s a step that virtual teams can’t miss.

3. Focus on Core Values

It’s great to define core values, but abiding by them is a different story. Virtual teams are spread across the globe, making it easier for accountability to fall by the wayside and mistakes to go unnoticed.

Those managing virtual teams need a way to enforce company core values properly. If this hasn’t already been established, it’s time to call a meeting (or three) and figure out how you’ll continue driving core values forward.

Here’s an idea to get started: to help emphasize company core values, you can design an employee recognition program. This is a way to highlight team members who embody core values and help encourage others to follow in their footsteps.

4. Communicate Effectively with Great Tools

Here’s an unfortunate truth about virtual teams: miscommunications can happen a lot more easily. Ever read a text and completely misinterpret it, only to later find out the sender had benign intentions? The same thing happens in work settings.

There are a few aspects of work that need to be kept in mind when managing virtual teams. First, last-minute requests and changes are far more challenging to respond to when working remotely. Imagine needing an immediate response from someone three hours ahead who’s already asleep? Constantly think multiple steps ahead and do everything in your power to avoid these last-minute changes.

Additionally, all team members should be willing to answer questions and deal with a little more back and forth. Make sure each teammate remains available after sending essential messages. Posting and ghosting is not your friend!

Lastly, set up informal communication channels for your virtual teams. According to one study, unstructured socializing for even 15 minutes per day can improve performance by 20%. You can either use an entirely different platform, or you can set aside casual conversation channels within your communication software.

5. Incorporate Virtual Icebreakers & Team Building

I can hear the groans already! Okay, icebreakers may not be the best way to get to know each other. But when you’ve got multiple faces on a video call who may never have met before, breaking the ice will help facilitate collaboration and team building.

Here are some virtual icebreakers you can try with your virtual teams:

  1. Share three interesting facts. Although this sounds boring, sharing unique facts about each team member allows people to find commonalities between themselves. It also offers excellent conversation starters for after the meeting. (“Hey, I remember you saying you never hit snooze on an alarm. That’s amazing! I hit snooze five times every day…”)
  2. Share an embarrassing story. How terrible! Actually, though, one Harvard Business Review study found that employees who share embarrassing stories about themselves “produced 26% more ideas spanning 15% more categories in brainstorming sessions.”
  3. Five of anything. Ask employees what their five favorite (or least favorite) of a category is -- this can include restaurants, movies, TV shows, and more.

Games are also a fun way to facilitate team building, whether everyone knows each other already or not! Here are some ideas to try at your next online team meeting:

  • Virtual Bingo
  • Scavenger hunt (find things around your home and share)
  • Truth or dare (turn off cameras to opt out)
  • Two truths and a lie
  • Among Us (or playing other online video games together)
  • Show and tell
  • Virtual escape rooms

Next Stop: Thriving Virtual Teams

Managing virtual teams presents new challenges, but rest assured that team building online is possible. When done correctly, productivity, collaboration, and all other metrics of team success will flourish.

Think about which tip you’ll try first and go from there. The results may surprise you!

Related: Build Successful (Remote) Tech Teams with These 7 Tips