Team collaboration in a virtual reality: remote teamwork tips

Written by: Nora St-Aubin | Illustrated by: Philippe Mathieu
Published on September 21, 2020 | Reading time: 8m

Strong team collaboration is a cornerstone of success; it’s what turns talent into innovation and sets a company apart from the competition. When employees come together and leverage their individual strengths towards becoming more impactful as a collective, anything is possible. This is the energy you want on your team as a manager, and exactly the kind of dynamic that will keep people engaged and contributing their best work.

This level of harmony takes a dedicated effort to achieve, and the distance of working from home can become a barrier to effective teamwork. We’ve outlined what exactly is different about remote team collaboration, and spoke with real managers to understand the common challenges teams are facing. Plus, we cover keys to success in making remote teamwork work, and the surprising connection between collaboration and employee autonomy.

What does team collaboration look like in a virtual reality?

The words “team collaboration” bring to mind groups of people in a room together, drawing venn diagrams on whiteboards and passing around reference documents. We picture colleagues huddled around a screen, pointing, gesturing and collectively nodding as their shared vision comes to life before them.

In the past, collaborative work relied heavily not just on physical spaces, but also physical tools. From water coolers and war rooms to ping pong tables and post-it notes, collaboration has always been deeply connected with employees’ environments. Now that we’re all separated physically, collaboration is less about where we are and more about how we connect, both in a practical sense and on a human level.

It’s time to rethink what it means to work as a team.

It’s time to rethink what it means to work as a team, and explore how to bring out collective creativity through new methods of working. As a team leader, you can support this shift by encouraging a collaborative mindset on your remote team.

Download our free collaboration guide and meeting framework to share with your team!

Tips to promote a collaborative mindset

  • Encourage individual team members to bring questions forward in a shared space like a Slack channel or during a team meeting to spark group discussions.
  • If your team members tend to work independently, partner people up for a weekly check-in where they can bounce ideas and ask each other questions.
  • Have biweekly cross team reviews where employees present the projects they’ve completed, ask each other questions, and share ideas for what’s coming up.

Common collaboration challenges of remote teams

Before we jump into solutions, it’s important that we really understand what the problems are. We asked real managers about their current collaborative team challenges, and we’ve highlighted the overarching themes that came up.

Working in silos

Whether or not it was the team’s dynamic at the office, many employees are working more independently from home. As a result people are struggling to maintain clear team communication, leading to a lack of visibility on what’s getting done.

💡Try this: Schedule a daily touchpoint at the start or end of the day where employees can run through what’s in the pipeline, flag any blockers, and share progress.

Misalignment

Working remotely has led to a disconnect for many teams, where it feels like people just aren’t on the same page and aligned around common goals. This is causing a scattered team focus and a mismatch of priorities.

💡Try this: Kick off every week with an overview of the team’s priorities and deliverables. Connect them with business objectives to keep everyone aligned and calibrated.

Strained peer relationships

On many teams, working relationships have dwindled with the loss of casual hallway chit-chat. This can impact everything from communication to employee morale and a sense of trust among peers.

💡Try this: Make space in the flow of work for relationship-building among peers. Start off a meeting by having everyone share a highlight from their weekend.

Adjusting to virtual tools

There are ample tools available in the realm of digital collaboration and project management, but for many employees this means adapting to a totally new way of working. Productivity may have taken a hit, but change can also lead to stress and overwhelm on your team.

💡Try this: Don’t just introduce a new collaboration tool, train employees on how to use it and discuss how it will support the team’s work. Reevaluate your work methods regularly as a team in retrospective meetings and make adjustments as needed.

Ensuring everyone is heard

Even when the team is in a shared space, it can be difficult to make sure everyone gets the chance to speak. But jumping into a group discussion and bouncing ideas becomes even more challenging with the awkward delays and speaking over one another that come with video conferencing.

💡Try this: Assign a moderator for every meeting to keep track of who’s spoken and ensure everyone is heard. Have them ask questions to prompt participation without putting anyone on the spot. For example, they could ask “Does anyone who hasn’t spoken up yet have a question or something to add?”

Track your team’s collaboration

Understanding how employees feel is as important as ever now that we’re all working from home. Officevibe Pulse Surveys track metrics like Peer Collaboration and Trust among Peers so you have a clear picture of how the shift to remote work is impacting your team.

Keys to successful remote teamwork

So what can managers and teams do to adjust their collaboration efforts to fit their new reality? We spoke with different teams at Officevibe and went to expert sources to uncover the keys to successful collaboration for remote employees. Here, we share our findings with you.

Common collaboration challenges of remote teams

A clear common purpose

Ensuring team alignment around the company mission, values, and goals is extra important when employees are separated. This helps everyone know where to direct their collective focus, and how to prioritize what they work on as a team.

💡Tip from Slack: “Workers who receive monthly strategy updates are the most likely to […] feel that teams at their organization are working toward a shared vision.” Schedule a recurring monthly meeting to go over the company strategy with your team and how you’re contributing to it.

Trust in one another

Trust comes up a lot in conversations around remote teamwork—not only trust between managers and employees but also the trust between colleagues. First and foremost, you want to show your team members that you trust them. From there, you can support them in building trust among themselves.

💡Tip from Deloitte: “Know and embrace the different personas in your team and their specific situation e.g. accept when a team member prefers not to use the video function in calls.” A little bit of flexibility and understanding can go a very long way in building trust with your team.

An asynchronous mindset

Seeing collaboration beyond working together in person, or even in real-time can be a game changer for remote teams. The idea is to move away from traditional teamwork sessions towards something more dynamic and flexible, so people can contribute as ideas arise without having to wait for the next meeting. Help your team find ways to brainstorm and build on ideas without everyone having to book more time in their calendar.

💡Tip from our team: We recently held an asynchronous brainstorm on a digital whiteboard featuring the different verticals we’ll focus on in our next quarter. The entire team had a week to place post-its with ideas of how to tackle each one, and we had two drop-in coffee hours for discussion throughout the week. At the end of the week, we did virtual voting to determine our roadmap of initiatives.

Empathy across roles

Building understanding among colleagues about the different realities and unique challenges of each role or expertise on your team helps not only foster meaningful relationships, but also smarter and more effective co-creation.

💡Tip from InVision & Ceros: “Set aside time for you and your collaborators to work together and run through discovery exercises so you can build empathy for each role.” A ‘discovery exercise’ could be a weekly lunch and learn where employees take turns sharing about their expertise—whatever will help everyone understand each other’s reality better.

A set of guidelines

Creating a set of guiding principles on how you can best work as a team makes expectations clear for everyone. Work together as a team to come up with your guidelines—you can use the framework below to guide you.

Remote collaboration guideline examples

  • Always mute your mic when not speaking while video conferencing
  • Update your messenger status to show when you’re available to chat
  • Outline a clear agenda and output for every meeting invitation
  • Tag people when posting communications that are relevant to their role

Download our free collaboration guide and meeting framework to share with your team!

Collaboration and employee autonomy

It might seem counterintuitive, but effective team collaboration is deeply connected with individual employee autonomy. When people have strong working relationships with their peers, they’re more empowered in their independent work. How do we know?

When we look at our Officevibe Pulse Survey data we see a strong correlation with whether employees feel they’re a part of a team and feeling:

  • Appropriately involved in decisions that affect their work,
  • That they have enough freedom to decide how to do their work,
  • In control when it comes to the work they need to accomplish, and
  • Satisfied with their level of autonomy at work.

There’s also a strong correlation between whether employees feel they’re a part of a team and feeling they can count on their peers when they need help. Collaboration goes beyond teamwork; it’s equal parts delivering our individual output, working together as a team, and stepping in to help one another out as needed.

Innovation flourishes when a team of smart, talented, and creative individuals are equipped with a clear shared purpose, the right enabling tools, and a collaborative mindset. Just because employees are spread out physically doesn’t mean they can’t bring their strengths together and collaborate like pros.