Leading a virtual team: My five key lessons to build collaboration and trust

A guest blog by Andy Punter.

I was managing innovation projects at Cancer Research UK with a virtual team long before lockdown forced us out of our offices and onto our kitchen tables. I’ve learnt loads about remote leadership, collaboration, trust and how to get to best from people, some of which I thought might be worth sharing. Here are my five key lessons.

1. Remote working is its own thing

When we work remotely we are not simply ‘working from home’. Remote or ‘virtual team’ working as a long-term discipline brings its own benefits and challenges and they are quite distinct from being office based.

If you’re managing remote based teams it is important to recognise that and give your team the permission to flex their working style to suit them. I personally, work better early in the day so it is not uncommon for me to start around 7.30am to focus on ‘deep focus’ tasks. Then I schedule calls and meetings for the afternoons when perhaps my concentration levels start to dip. I often work in a nearby café or hotdesking site when I feel the need to be around different people. (If you’re reading this in lockdown, I appreciate this might not be possible, but even changing where you sit can make a different to your mindset.) As a remote manager, it is important to let your teams know that you recognise that their day is different to an office-based worker and so their work pattern can be as well.

 2. Get to know each other

If you’re working in really close proximity everyday with someone you will inevitably learn their tics and habits; and without really noticing you will come to understand how they think and work. If, however, you only see that person every few weeks that process can take much longer.

When you work with remote teams it’s just as important to understand the people you work with (perhaps even more so) but you must work a bit harder on it. Whenever we kick off a new project, we do an exercise called a *‘team canvas’ where everyone feeds into defining the team’s core purpose, what they need to achieve it (both in practical and cultural terms) and what tools we are going to use to get there. This helps speed things up but then as a manager a big part of your role is to ensure those things are implemented and maintained.

3. Collaboration is king

One thing that often holds organisations back from embracing remote working is the impact on collaboration when everyone is spread out. I am pleased to report that if you are organised, structured and use the right tools then there is nothing you cannot do. We use Slack/Teams, Trello and Mural to plan our work and collaborate remotely, but more importantly we make judicious use of video chats to stay in touch. One very important thing to note though – even if just one of you is remote, then ALL of you must be too. There is nothing worse than being the lone voice on a conference call when everyone else is in the room.

4. Social time

As a rule, we all tend to do better work when we enjoy working with our colleagues; so how do you keep everyone engaged when you can’t spontaneously take everyone to lunch whenever you fancy? We have a few different strategies.

  • We have a weekly video chat at the start of each week where there is no agenda and the only topic off limits is work. This helps to keep everyone in touch and fosters a social atmosphere.
  • Team Spotify playlist – hands up, this has one been a mixed bag and jury is out on how much listening time each week it gets. But, it has been really fun to learn about everyone’s music preferences; you learn a surprising amount about someone when you discover that their number one jam is the Greatest Showman Soundtrack.
  • No conference calls! If there’s more than one person on a call, then make it a video call! I really can’t stress how valuable this has been to us. You get the benefit of reading body language and it is just a much, much nicer way to work. When everyone has access to video chat I can’t really think of a good reason for conference calls.
  • Get a good instant message client – we use Slack/Teams and having a forum to share quick links, Gifs and ideas without the formality of email has been a godsend.
  • Make really good use of your face time. We typically get together once a month in person, and as we emerge from lockdown it will be possible to meet face to face again. We really make a conscious effort to make sure there is space on the agenda for the conversation to wander a bit if needed. It may feel as though the discussion can get unfocused at times however, fostering team togetherness takes priority over everything else.

5. Discipline and Trust

To the untrained eye it might look like it’s all video coffees (and the occasional video pint) and Spotify playlists, but it is important to point out that all of those things exist to make the work better. As a manager you can’t simply lay out the ways of working to your team. Ideally, it should all come from them. The only way it works is if everyone buys into it. If someone from the team starts regularly skipping social calls etc, then you need to question if it’s worthwhile and achieving the goal. Although you are using creative tools and practices, there has be quite strict etiquette and agreed rules of use to make them work. The role of the manager is to support these and help make sure they are working for everyone.

And finally, my number one learning since working with a nationally spread, remote virtual team is that there is nothing you cannot do that office-based workers can and given the choice, I am not sure I can see myself working in an office environment again any time soon.

Andy Punter is a relationship fundraiser working at Cancer Research UK. Living in Sunny Devon, his twin passions are effective remote working and helping a virtual team innovate more effectively by putting the supporter at the heart of each and every decision.

2 thoughts on “Leading a virtual team: My five key lessons to build collaboration and trust

  1. It is great to see a fellow Cancer Research UK colleague guest blogging on this platform! Thanks for the helpful tips Andy. As someone who is normally office based, I am now helping to lead my team from home in an ever-uncertain environment. It has been tough but we’re slowly finding our feet and I am pleased to say we had already implemented several of the tips mentioned here-including the Spotify playlist, which has been very revealing!

    Thanks again for a great article.

  2. Andy, I would feel very confident working in one of your teams.
    I especially like the idea of ‘no conference calls’. Zoom has become so familiar to us all, and there are other suitable platforms now, so there is no excuse,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *