Designing a virtual team for remote work

Teams need a solid foundation. Whether your office is remote, brick-and-mortar, or blended, it needs to be equipped as a virtual team.

Future of Work

I haven’t always worked remotely, let alone in a virtual team. Dare I say that some twenty odd years ago, I was a corporate gal, in high heels and pencil skirts. I’d navigate the 15km traffic-filled stop-start drive to the office, park, sashay past the reception crew, and swipe my access card at the turnstiles. Out again at lunch and in again. Out again at the end of my work day. Swipe-swipe-swipe. Back in traffic. Home. 

The average American’s one-way work commute is 27.1 minutes.

That’s over 225 hours of your precious life commuting each year. Sigh.

U.S. Census Bureau

Later, I left the confines of my corporate life behind and moved into the free flowing wondrously crazy world of startup. Done with the traffic and turnstiles, I felt euphoric in the freedom of building a remote team.

Finding a framework for a virtual team

We only worked from two geographies: the South African crew would work from home; the Ireland team would populate a shared office space. However, during my first visit to Dublin, euphoria died down. I arrived on a typically lively, crisp, grey day, sun squeezing through the drizzle and streaming through massive windows. Used to the confines of my then-not-so-pretty converted garage home office, I felt enviously excited by this traditional office space scenario. 

Arriving straight from the airport at our then Dublin, Ireland shared office space. I’m the little one out in the rain with the pink umbrella. Claire is greeting me at the doorway.

Not long after returning home to South Africa, we started looking for a traditional office of our own. We rented a great space. We had fun setting it up, handing out the keys, and popping open a bottle of bubbles while digitally cheered on by the Ireland team. This honeymoon phase didn’t last long—just under a year. Our company was growing, we were hiring for customer fit and didn’t feel we needed to be bogged down by geography. 

With so many benefits of remote work, it’s unlikely I’ll ever go back to a traditional brick-and-mortar business. Here’s what we’ve learned in terms of remote work for growing virtual teams.

Lessons in remote work for growing virtual teams

Our team has gracefully danced through multiple fluid iterations, being fully virtual, blended, fully remote, virtual with head office, then back to fully virtual. Of course, there’s no right or wrong way to house your team. Growing to support remote work and building a virtual team requires us to be nimble and quick and able to pivot.

1. Virtual team

First, what is a virtual team? A virtual team involves individuals working together from different geographic locations.

Pros of virtual teams

The cherry from a leadership lens is hiring great people, regardless of where they’re located. We learn diversity, tolerance, and how to have hard conversations fast. We’re not time-robbed by commute. We work in our favorite places. We make our own schedules. Some choose to work in their PJs. Conversations are fluid, direct, and always open. We share pictures of our pets, don’t catch each other’s germs. Think fluid, fun, and free. 

Cons of virtual teams

The thing with modern work is it’s cool, hip, and happening. We have a plethora of excited humans anxiously drawn to working from anywhere in the world that they like. They’re excited about working remotely without realizing that it’s simply not for everyone.

Core behaviors of the remote worker are:

  • Exceptional written and verbal communication
  • Self discipline
  • Prudent time management

Things can get painfully interesting. If you’re not set up as a virtual team across the five areas of work (time, task, communication, meetings, and documentation) and if you think a traditional setup can cut it for you, you’re in for one helluva surprise. It’s just not the same.

Laptop, solid internet connection, and good lighting (preferably natural) are just the basics. Without firm foundations in place, you will compromise culture and quickly hinder productivity.

2. Blended team

What is a blended team? It’s a combination work in which part of a team works in a traditional, centralized space, while others work virtually.

Pros of blended teams

This could be set-up in a combination of different scenarios. In our instance, though, we had a section of our team working from a traditional office space, and another working totally decentralized. The flexibility (depending on the location) was good. 

Cons of blended teams

A physical office and a virtual office have different requirements, and getting them on the same plane can be tricky. Without making sure they’re compatible, it doesn’t take long for one team to feel disconnected from another.

Imagine you’re in a team meeting. Ten of you are working from your home offices and five are centralized in a conference room at the physical office. Cameras are on. Part of the team ends up sharing inside jokes, having drinks in the office on Fridays to celebrate a birthday. The other part of the very same team is left out. Knowledge gaps. Time lags. Missed information. Silos. 

As if that’s not enough, add time zones to the picture, different geographies, cities/states and cultures all play into the chaos. Eventually, these issues wills creep into your culture, fragment your people, and diminish your overall success. Doom and gloom.

Interestingly, within 18 months of taking this blended approach, and despite the fact that our company was set up for remote work, our teams started to stay at home more. Before we knew it, we were paying high rental fees for offices that were largely sitting empty. Turns out our teams just worked better from their own spaces because our systems are set up for us to succeed.  

3. Remote team

What are remote teams? They’re teams working together in more than one centralized spaces (or hubs). This is where things get contentious, so I don’t want us to get too stuck on the words. Arguably, a virtual team is a remote team. I am specifically choosing the term “remote” to reference a team that works in a group away from another group. Decentralized.

The pros of remote teams

The good is walking meetings, impromptu think tanks with physical contact and tools to scribble and think. An in-person playground. You’re not always staring at a screen and you get to drink someone else’s coffee.

The cons of remote teams

Initially, we had two office spaces. Consequently, while we were already set up as a virtual team, our remote teams got together in their specific geographies and built—different—relationships. Different cultures.

It’s pretty easy to form silos. Us against them. Back channeling. These things are not cool for anyone. 

And underneath all that pressure, the foundation of your fancy, seldom used office spaces start to crack. Wasted money on rent. Wasted time in traffic. Leaving and arriving home in the dark. Now, if only we could build these same, perhaps even more engaging and encompassing teams without these downsides.

4. Virtual team with VCs

What’s it mean to have a virtual office with VCs? It involves a centralized team working out of an investor’s office with the rest of the team working virtually.

Here, we shifted to building our product team, and again we made a call to change things (albeit, temporarily). 

The pros of virtual teams with VCs

By now our office was thriving. Business was starting to grow legs in the US, and we shifted our head office to the United States from Ireland. We had just closed a VC round, and our investor invited us to use a large section of their office. The timing was perfect, as we were building a brand new engineering team that hadn’t worked together before. It was important that they could sync up in real-time, while getting to know each other well. It was our intention to do this for the first year of the product build, while keeping the rest of the team working virtually around the globe.

Check out our case study about the early setup of the product team: the wins, the pitfalls, and the massive growing curve. 

The cons of virtual teams with VCs

Many tech teams don’t work fully remotely. They tend to do a day or three per week from their virtual home offices. The rest of the time, they work in a centralized space. Initially, our team met at the office daily. But, as the team got used to working virtually, their preferences pulled them back to a home office environment, while tasks like backlog grooming are still done from time-to-time in the office.

Sometimes an in-person meeting is just what’s needed. Fortunately, we have a centralized space available for when we require it. A sticky point prevented us from finalizing our annual strategy late last year. After much turmoil, we eventually pulled the stakeholders into our office to scribble on the walls until we found a resolution. Old habits die hard.

Being set up as a virtual team from the get-go helps optimize these transitions. It’s our version of “beam me up Scotty”.

Optimizing your virtual office

Finally, here we are, full circle—back in the same place, but totally different.

As a company, we’ve explored many combinations of office styles in order to build an effective team. A virtual office involves a fully remote team working across the globe in multiple countries, states, and cities.

In retrospect, success is never about doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result. According to Einstein, that’s insanity. So, despite finding ourselves back where we were in the beginning, we’re absolutely different. 

Over the years we have really pushed our boundaries, listened to our teams, and most importantly, we’ve iterated and adjusted to find what works well as we progress. Should we stagnate, building the future of work becomes something of the past.

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