Google’s 7 Keys to Successfully Managing Virtual Teams

Virtual teams are on the rise. In 2017, Gallup reported 43% of the US workforce a report working remotely at least part of the time. According to Buffer, 99% of workers in a global survey said they would like to work remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their careers.

Google knows this better than anyone else: 2 in 5 of its teams include Googlers in more than one location; 30% of its meetings involve two or more time zones.

It’s no surprise that the tech giant embarked on a two-year study to discover what makes remote teams successful. Google’s People Innovation Lab surveyed 5,000 employees to measure performance, connectedness, and well-being (among other things).

“We were happy to find no difference in the effectiveness, performance ratings, or promotions for individuals and teams whose work requires collaboration with colleagues around the world versus Googlers who spend most of their day to day working with colleagues in the same office,” reported People Analytics Manager Veronica Gilrane, who conducted the survey.

Remote workers are both more productive and engaged; they also suffer less from stress. That’s great news for companies and employees alike. It requires building the right norms though.

Here are seven secrets from Google’s playbook to building successful remote teams.

1. Create strong personal connections

Remote working doesn’t come without friction. Google uncovered that working with colleagues across the globe makes it more challenging to establish relationships.

There are logistics challenges like coordinating schedules across time zones or booking a conference room for a video chat. The technology itself can limit personal connections  —  glitchy video or sound problems can disrupt authentic conversations.

Teamwork is all about strong personal relationships ;  the more people know each other, the better they can collaborate. Remote teams have fewer interactions than regular teams. It’s key to create opportunities for building trust and making people feel connected.

As the manager of Google’s People Innovation Lab recommends, “Instead of jumping right into an agenda, allow some time at the top of the meeting for an open-ended question.”

Asking “What did you do this weekend?” is an easy way to establish a rapport and build connection. A mindset check-in at the beginning of a call, not only provides awareness of “What’s got your attention?” It helps us understand what everyone is going through.

The kickoff and end of a project  —  or specific milestones  —  provide opportunities for team reflection and align expectations.

Forge connections to get people know each other better ,  both virtually and in-person.

2. Make remote team members visible

Google’s report suggests using video over plain voice conferences. Though this seems obvious, most organizations still rely heavily on audio calls.

Video provides more benefits than just allowing people to see others’ faces. Non-verbal language is as important as the words we say. When people can’t see our body language, they guess it  —  usually for the worse.

Making people visible is also about encouraging participation. Successful teams allow every member to speak up and share their thoughts. If you see someone trying to enter the conversation, stop and invite their comments. Men, extroverts, and managers tend to interrupt more and take over.

Conversational turn-taking is an effective way to listen to the voice of quiet people by everyone their moment of glory. Allowing participants to speak, one-at-a-time in alternating turns minimizes interruptions and groupthink.

Allow those who are not in the room to go first  —  the ‘”locals” should listen and wait.

3. Set clear norms for remote teams

There are many options for working remotely. Google’s Gilrane recommends team leaders should be upfront about where people can work from and how. This eliminates the perception that individual team members have privileges others don’t.

Clear rules avoid confusion, unnecessary friction and misunderstandings  —  everyone knows what to expect from others.

Ask your teammates when they like to take meetings. Don’t assume. Find a solution that works for most, and that’s flexible.

Similarly, establish communication protocols. Define emails/ pings off-hours, expected response time, personal schedules and when people should or shouldn’t join meetings off-hours.

The entire team should help design the norms. Remote working is all about collaboration ;  everyone should play an active role.

4. Remote team members should be present

Distractions create exponential harm in a remote team. If a phone rings when you are having a video conference it’s more annoying than when you are in the same room. Remote employees are more susceptible to feeling they are being ignored.

Being present requires managers and other team members to be more mindful about their behaviors. Close your laptop ,  unless you are the note-taker. Silence phones and place them face down. Make eye contact with the person that’s on the other side of the screen.

Be mindful about engaging others. If someone seems detached, find out what’s going on. Nod or say “Thank you” after someone makes a contribution. Make them feel you are paying attention.

Lastly, avoid side conversations or chit chat with those who are in the same room as you. Most of us forget to give proper attention or care to those who are ‘outside.’

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5. Get support from your buddies

Successful teams depend on interpersonal relationships  —  a buddy system is the foundation of collaboration.

We could all use a buddy from time to time, especially if we are not in the same location as the majority of the team. A buddy is like your sidekick  —  they become your partner in crime.

Building duos within teams ensures someone is looking out for you  —  and the other way around. You don’t need to change the world alone. An accountability partner increases your chance of success. As I wrote here, your buddy helps you stay on track, provides feedback, coaches and mentors you  –  it’s your go-to person within the remote team.

6. Rotate time zones

This is one is so simple, yet spot-on. No matter how much you try to work it out, there’s no such a thing as a perfect time to hold a meeting with global teams.

Usually, the project owner or the most senior executive choose the most convenient time. Unfortunately, there’s always one or two locations that are punished, either because they are part of a small region or underrepresented.

Rotating time zones distributes the pain equally  —  everyone gets their chance to wake up earlier than usual. Flexibility is critical for effective remote teams. Rules should adapt and change through time.

A rotating schedule eases the time zone burden.

7. Create in-person experiences for remote team members

Working remotely doesn’t mean that your team won’t ever see each other again.

While distributed work has many benefits, in-person interactions cannot be replaced. In the end, it’s human working with humans. Technology connects people; strong relationships make people feel connected.

Face-to-face interactions simplify specific tasks but also add depth. The more people know each other, the better.

Leverage any opportunity for face-to-face interactions —  they reinforce virtual ones.

Hold a casual Friday event so everyone who lives within a reasonable distance can join in person. Create regular face-to-face mandatory meetings to build stronger bonding. Use that time wisely  —  allow people to mingle, design team-building experiences, and encourage participation.

Team retreats are an excellent opportunity to reflect on collaboration and improve how to work together.

Set up a budget for travel and team bonding activities. Remote workers save organizations a lot of money  —  reinvest some on team development.

One word secret

The biggest secret to remote teams is no secret. All these findings can be summarized in one word: empathy. It’s about remembering that we are still working with people, regardless of where they are located.

Empathy is a superpower that helps us see other people — understanding your teammates brings everyone together and fosters collaboration.

We don’t talk about remote work as much as we should. distributedworkplaybooks
provides many actionable insights to bring the conversation to the forefront. The keys to successful remote teams don’t have to stay secret.

Gustavo Razzetti is the CEO of Liberationist, a change leadership consultancy that helps organizations become more innovative.  His human-centered approach liberates the 'change gene' within every team.

Razzetti has over 20 years of experience transforming human behavior at the intersection of Neuroscience, Design Thinking, Mindfulness, and Creativity.

Gustavo is the author of "Stretch for Change," "Stretch Your Mind," and "Stretch Your Team.” He is also a regular speaker and has facilitated hundreds of change workshops in the US, Europe, and Latin America.

In his capacity advising CEOs and teams of everything from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies, Razzetti has consulted companies in almost every business category including Verizon, P&G, 20th Century Fox, Coca-Cola, General Motors, Allstate, Walgreens and McDonald’s, among others. He was previously EVP at Leo Burnett Chicago. Prior to that, he worked as CEO of Euro RSCG in New York, Argentina, and Puerto Rico. 

Gustavo has authored hundreds of articles on innovation, change leadership and personal transformation. He has participated in the—by invitation only—Innovation Leadership Program at Stanford University. 

Now living in Chicago, Razzetti is married with two sons.