Ideally, it starts in real life like this… Photo from IPCUK 2015 via Permaculture Association (Britain).

Virtual Team Quick Guide

Introduction

Transition is creating a new culture of collaboration, and virtual tools can help us to build relationships with each other through working together. It also enables us to use our collective intelligence to develop Transition by sharing ideas, hopes and aspirations. This has been made possible by the advent of faster internet speeds, faster computers and new software tools that enable us to work as virtual teams rather than having to work face to face. This means we can be more inclusive as we can connect with and learn from people all over the world. It is also great for the environment as we don’t have to get on a plane to work with others.

Transition Network and Transition Hubs use virtual working all the time in order to meet, consult, work on projects together and much more. We still try to meet face to face, as it helps us to build relationships and stay more connected. Transitioners all over the world are collaborating at a distance to plan events, translate articles and books, deliver projects and coordinate activities.

This guide has been produced to help you work together as a virtual team; it has come out of our experiments within the Transition movement, particularly the virtual team working between the national hubs and within Transition Network. It provides suggestions on how best to work together and suggests tools you can use, but it is important to understand that virtual teams ultimately work because of the relationships you have with each other. Virtual working can be tough if you are not used to it, so we hope this guide can help your group.

In Transition we have a series of principles for virtual working that are worth considering:

  1. Meeting in person is great, so we aim to do this whenever we can.
  2. Not everyone has a really fast computer and great internet connection so we use the most basic tools where possible in order to include everyone.
  3. We recognise that meeting virtually can help us to get stuff done and we accept that this means more time in front of a computer, rather than doing stuff outside in our communities.
  4. We are all learning to use online tools in a more skilled, effective and productive way. This can be challenging at times, so we will support each other.
  5. It’s easier to use the tools that most of us already use and we will only suggest new tools that everyone finds easy to use.
  6. We understand that it’s important to act in the virtual world as we would in the real world, by treating each other with compassion and respect and maintaining an awareness of our differences.

Real time communication & time-shifted communication

There are two ways you can work with each other online:

(1) Real time communication: You are all meeting together at the same time just like real-life team meetings — this is great because you can debate issues and make decisions there and then.

  • Benefits: 
    - It helps you to build relationships in your group, as you are all present and can have rich, involved conversations with each other.
  • Challenges: 
    - It can be very demanding for the person organising it, as it can be difficult to get everyone together at the same time. 
    - It is not great for sharing large amounts of information as different people process information differently. 
    - If your technology fails then the meeting has to end.

(2) Time-shifted communication: You are all working on a project at different times; examples of this are forums and online groups, social media, and collaborative/shared documents.

  • Benefits: 
    - Good for presenting and discussing complicated ideas with each other over a period of time and when you are free to do so. This also allows time for people to reflect and think about ideas. 
    - Most tools keep a record of what has been added and changed so you can see how ideas have developed.
  • Challenges: 
    - Not that good for making urgent or important decisions. 
    - People can misunderstand what is being said as you can’t ask questions. 
    - People may not contribute.

Important: People learn differently — an audio explanation may be great for some people, but for a visual learner they can be a waste of time. It’s a good idea to discuss this in your group, so people understand how they learn and then take responsibility for making sure their needs are met within the team.

Which tools to use

There are very many software and hardware tools that you can use. The key thing is to get a tool that does what you need it to do, is easily accessible with regard to cost (lots are free), and most importantly that is easy to use.

In order to decide what tools to use, we recommend doing the following with your group:

  • List the tools people already use in your group, as this has the advantage of people already knowing how to use them and being able to show others.
  • Divide them up into those that have similar functions.
  • You may need more than one tool, so agree on which tool you will use for each type of communication — often one for real-time communication and one for time-shifted communication.
  • Discuss how people feel about using the different tools. People’s computer skills can vary hugely, so find out who would need help to set up and use them.
  • Think about producing a simple quick use guide or highlight how-to videos on YouTube.

Examples of tools

Below are some tools that members of your virtual team may already be using. These can all be used without any costs.

Commonly used tools 
- Gmail — Webmail 
- Google Docs— Online office suite 
- Google Drive— Shared folders 
- Google Calendar— Shared calendar 
- Google Groups— Email lists 
- Google Sites — Team websites and wikis 
- Doodle— Find a meeting date 
- Skype or Zoom — Video chat and messaging 
- Slack — Rich online messaging 
- Facebook groups — Collaborative decision-making

Community developed alternatives 
- ProtonMail — Webmail 
- Only Office — Online office suite 
- Only Office — Shared folders 
- Only Office — Shared calendar 
- Aktivix — Email lists 
- MediaWiki — Not available unless you host it on your server 
- Moreganize — Find a meeting date 
- Jitsi or Mconf — Video chat and messaging 
- Rocketchat — Rich online messaging 
- Loomio — Collaborative decision making

We’ve also included some Open Source tools above, for those people who do not wish to use corporate software. In general it’s best to go with tools your group are already familiar with. If your team has concerns about privacy then you should read about each tool’s security; for more advice on security check out the Tech Tools for Activism website.

Disclaimer: this is not a recommendation for any of the tools mentioned — they are just some of those that we know Transition Initiatives have found useful.

…and it continues online like this. Please note that most of the microphones are muted to prevent background noise for conference participants. The person speaking is highlighted. This is a screenshot from one of the Hubs Group video conferences, taken by Juan del Rio.

Setting up virtual teams and making them work well

When you are working together virtually you can communicate by writing and reading (text on screens) or by talking and listening (voice/video).

A couple of things to bear in mind are:

  • You are not working face to face, so it can be easy to have a great meeting that is followed by no action. To avoid this your team needs to be 100% committed to carrying out the work.
  • Virtual working can take up a lot of your attention, as every communication (email, notification, online meeting etc.) creates work.

There are a few simple things you can do to help virtual working to run smoothly.

  • If meeting in real time then decide in your group: 
    - when you are going to meet 
    - what communication tool you are going to use to do this.
  • If working in a time-shifted manner then decide in your group: 
    - which collaboration tool you will use to work on the project/idea 
    - the date that people will need to contribute by.

To be clear, effective virtual teamwork is not just about tools — it is about using the right processes, developing good relationships and being realistic about what you are able to do.

Roles for Virtual Working

In order to make virtual working effective, it is good if people take on a couple of specific roles. These roles may seem a bit daunting at first, but they are really easy to pick up and become easier with practice. It is good for people in your group to take turns in carrying out the different roles, as everyone then develops the skills and people can stand in for each other.

Team Guardian

They are responsible for organising your virtual team’s collaboration between meetings. Ideally, they need to be quite organised as they often do the following, but it is up to your group what they do:

  • Schedule meetings, send invites, updates and reminders.
  • Prepare agenda proposals ahead of the meeting.
  • Maintain the virtual team’s shared folder and shared document with meeting notes.
  • Facilitate communication between virtual team members in between meetings.
  • Remind members about their actions ahead of meetings, etc.

It is also the responsibility of the guardian to pass on the role to another member of the working group in cases where he/she feels that they cannot perform the role adequately.

Facilitator

A facilitator is needed in all but very small meetings, as they:

  • Help the group to have an efficient and inclusive meeting by getting everyone to decide on and keep to a structure and process for the meeting.
  • Keep the meeting focused, regulates the discussion and ensures everyone participates.

You can decide who will facilitate at the start of the meeting, but it can be better to decide beforehand so that they have time to prepare themselves.

In virtual meetings the facilitator also has a few other responsibilities:

  • They need to ensure that the technology is working throughout the meeting.
  • They need to make sure that everyone is able to contribute; this can be done by directly asking people to contribute or going around everyone in the group asking for their view.

You can also have a host role that helps out the facilitator. Their job is to help people use the communication tools and to keep an eye on the chat window to ensure that flow of the meeting is not disturbed. They will need to have a good understanding of the tool you are using and understand how to communicate with people using chat signals.

Facilitating virtual teams requires a range of skills that can be developed through practice and with some guidance. So if you are doing this, here’s some advice on how to get started:

  • Read this Guide so you understand the roles and how meetings are run.
  • Read the agenda beforehand so you have an understanding of the shape of the meeting — it can be helpful to note where decisions need to be made etc.
  • Go with the flow of a meeting and don’t get stressed; hopefully everyone in the meeting wants it to work, so they should support you in your facilitation.

Keeper roles

The above two roles are there to manage the meeting so that it runs smoothly and is effective. In Transition we also have 3 more roles that are really helpful for both online and offline meetings.

These are what we call “keepers” and their functions are:

  • Keeper of the Record (they produce the write-up of the meeting). Key tasks and skills: 
    - good command of the shared document of choice 
    - ability to make notes in an agreed format 
    - determination to check what is written with team mates
  • Keeper of the Time (time watcher). Key tasks and skills: 
    - remind facilitator, host and meeting participants about the time remaining at agreed intervals 
    - pay attention to the passage of time
  • Keeper of the Heart (vibes watcher). Key tasks and skills: 
    - observe the emotional atmosphere in the virtual meeting environment 
    - initiate interventions when needed, for example, if it feels that people are getting frustrated they can use pauses, breaks or other activities to restore a good atmosphere.

We all have a role in virtual meetings

Working in virtual teams works really well when everyone takes some responsibility for their success. Here are some tips on how you can all help them to be successful:

  • Read through this Guide to understand virtual working and virtual meetings.
  • Remember you are still dealing with real people. A virtual meeting is the same thing as a face-to-face meeting, only carried out differently, so the same “be on time” and other good manners apply.
  • Treat virtual teamwork the same way as you do real-life work; don’t join a virtual team if you don’t have time for it, and let people know if you can’t make a meeting.
  • Build trust and relationships with your virtual teammates by staying in touch (responding to messages), doing your share (doing what you said you’d do), and asking for help when you need it.
  • Offer to take roles in group or meetings; you can always learn something or gain new experience. Also, be proactive; don’t assume people that have taken the group roles are the only ones to have initiative!

Running meetings effectively

It is up to your group how you run a meeting, but there are some standard approaches that are similar to face-to-face meetings that are useful. It can be useful to write down a standard set of rules that you can share with people in your group and new people who join.

Agendas are useful and help the meeting to achieve its aims. It is useful to have shared the agenda before the meeting to give people the opportunity to add items, or at least have asked people for items they would like to discuss.

An agenda will usually have “standing items” — that are the same for every meeting, such as:

  • A check-in — everyone says a few words about how they are, and something they’re enjoying at the moment (it helps to start on a positive note).
  • Set up roles — if they’re not already agreed (facilitator, keepers of the time, record and heart).
  • Set date of next meeting — it’s good to do this early on, in case people need to leave before the end of the meeting.
  • Agree the agenda — at this point you might want to decide on the priorities as a group and allocate time to them. It can be good to tackle difficult issues in the middle, so people have had a chance to warm up but are not yet tired.
  • Go through the actions from the last meeting.
  • Work through the agenda, recording any decisions and actions and who is responsible for them.
  • Restate the actions at the end of the meeting so people are clear about what they have agreed to.
  • Reflect together on how the meeting was run.
  • Check out — ask how the meeting went, what was good and what was challenging.

Some other practices that can help virtual meetings to run smoothly are:

  • decide beforehand how to make decisions and when you may need to consult with other people
  • one person = one meeting role; if needed: one role = two people; one person never = multiple roles
  • recommended maximum meeting duration: 90 minutes
  • turn off all distractions on your screen
  • be in a quiet room and use earphones/headphones, and a microphone really helps too
  • mute your microphone while not speaking, especially if you are typing (and webcam if bandwidth is low)
  • unmute your microphone and webcam while speaking (bandwidth permitting)
  • make it clear when you have finished talking, particularly if there is no video
  • no parallel voice and chat discussions; it’s too distracting for facilitators and participants
  • use chat as facilitation tool for chat signals only (see below), or to share links where appropriate.

If you’re meeting with just Transition group members then that is pretty easy to sort out. It can be more complicated if you’re meeting with people in other countries and in different time zones. Here are some tips to help this situation:

  • Meet at a time which is convenient for everyone and check they are able to use the tools. You may have to contact people before the meeting to find this out.
  • Use the international meeting planner of your choice, for example timeanddate.com or greenwichmeantime.com or similar.
  • Send them a copy of your meeting guidelines, so they understand how the meeting will work.

Hand & Chat signals

If you are all using video then you can use actual hand signals such as these here. If you do this, then you need to make sure that the facilitator/host is viewing all the people in the meeting to pick up when people are signalling.

You can also have chat “hand signals” that mimic the usual hand signals used at face-to-face meetings and gatherings. This enables people to interact without having to interrupt each other and it also helps to share views on what is being said. Chat signals are very simple to use; you just type a letter into the chat window for everyone to see. They are usually one or two characters, and capital letters can be used for emphasis.

As with face-to-face hand signals, there is no fixed set of chat signals, but it is good to have a common set of chat signals.

Here are some chat signals we use, typing them into the chat window:

  • h = hand, I would like to speak when it is my turn; in reply to a facilitator’s “open” question
  • hh = two hands, I have additional information on what the current speaker is saying; i.e. a direct response — not to be misused!
  • y = yes; in reply to a facilitator’s “closed” question
  • n = no; in reply to a facilitator’s “closed” question
  • A = ‘sounds good’ or ‘I agree’; quick feedback to speaker or facilitator
  • W = silent applause, celebration! :)
  • T = I would like to make technical point (particularly used by keepers)
  • L = language; I don’t understand
  • Q = I have a question for the facilitator or speaker
  • use emoticons to express feelings (useful for the ‘keeper of the heart’)

Between meetings

We meet to discuss our work and agree on actions. Meetings are also precious for the development of our relationships. However, the work of our collaboration happens BETWEEN meetings.

What seems to be crucial in developing collaboration culture that is effective, efficient and enjoyable for all involved is maintaining team “music”— a regular “rhythm” of meetings and an ongoing team “melody” of communication in between meetings — while doing what we have agreed to do, individually and as a team. Just meeting from time to time, without also making ourselves available for some level of ongoing communication in between meetings, can significantly reduce team effectiveness. If the rhythm of meetings is slow we forget and we grow distant. There is a Croatian proverb: “Far from the eyes, far from the heart”. We normally use it to speak about a situation in personal relationships, but it also describes what happens in virtual teams, when people collaborate remotely.

A pattern for virtual team rhythms probably depends on the work intensity and virtual team members’ availability — volunteers are normally less available than paid professionals. The rhythm, for example, could combine weekly meetings (focusing on tasks — perform), monthly meetings (focusing on course adjustments — reform) and quarterly meetings (focusing on reflection — transform). Ongoing communication is probably best done daily, using instant messaging tool of choice, including 1-on-1 video calls when needed.

Blended meetings and events

Blended meetings are those where people are meeting face-to-face in a meeting room at the same time as others are remotely calling in.

A blended meeting can be held using the free tools that most people already have on their laptops [detailed write-up of a large blended meeting is shared here].

  • The bare minimum you will need: 
    - a high-speed broadband internet connection in the room (use speedtest.net or similar to check it, then compare with broadband requirements in the conference software ‘Help’. If this is low you can downgrade from video to audio to chat only) 
    - one laptop with, for example, Zoom/Skype or similar conference software that has integrated chat (we use chat as a facilitation tool, so the chat window needs to be clearly visible and expandable); preferably a newer laptop with good graphics
  • For best results some inexpensive additional equipment is required: 
    - an external webcam, preferably on a tripod, or you place it on a sheet of paper to easily turn it around to show speakers 
    - an external microphone (wireless or with the cable long enough to be passed around when the event participants in the room are speaking, so that the online participants can hear them well) 
    - external speakers, if you would like to have voice communication from the online participants in the room, but be careful as you can get echo problems 
    - an external screen (or LCD projector) if you would like to have two-way video communication with the online participants.

The key to a good blended meeting is to prepare well so that it runs smoothly.

  • Having a room with good light and low background noise is very helpful.
  • It is best if you have a dedicated virtual host who is responsible for communicating with the online participants using conference software (audio, video, chat) and the laptop’s internal webcam.
  • This can be one or more people. They are the link between the online participants and what is happening in the room.
  • Ideally, virtual hosts are attendees of the meeting, because they need to be involved in the event, familiar with the topics and know the participants both online and in the room.
  • The virtual host needs to know how to use all the technology so they can easily switch between people. Doing a test run before the meeting can help resolve this.

There are two ways in which people who are not present can participate. If they are visible and can be heard by all the group then they can participate almost as if they were actually in the room, through audio and video when invited to by the meeting facilitator in the room.

  • For this to work, the laptop audio and video output needs to be switched to the external speakers and external screen by the virtual host.
  • In small meetings, the laptop’s speakers and screen will do (with the online participants’ video on fullscreen).

If someone’s internet connection is not good enough for them to attend properly, or you don’t have the equipment to do blended meetings, then they can turn off their video and just use chat (or email, shared documents, social networks, etc.) and participate silently, assisted by the virtual host.

  • Most of the time communication is silent (chat) so as not to disturb the process in the room (very important!).
  • For this reason microphones and speakers can be muted, or the virtual host can use earphones to hear the online participants, but replies to them in chat only.
  • The virtual host then relays their input to the room.

Resources

What you find in this Guide is probably enough to get you going nicely, but you may want to dive into learning more about virtual teams if this topic intrigues you. Here are some recommended resources:

Let us know what you think

We are going to keep improving this guide based on your feedback. Send us your experiences of using this guide and any methods and tips and tricks on how to improve virtual working to transitionnetwork.org/contact.

Thanks

This guide was produced by Nenad Maljković and Transition Network. Thanks for the input goes to the Hubs Group members, International REconomy Group, Transition Network staff and trustees, ECOLISE people, European Permaculture Teachers Partnership, European Permaculture Network Vision and Strategy Working Group, South-East European Permaculture Network and Zagreb Permaculture Teachers’ Training Course 2015 Team.

Special thanks to Lincoln Loop for their great Ginger 4-part email course on improving remote team communication.


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