It’s almost impossible to discuss business in the digital age without peppering the conversations with allusions to teamwork and collaboration.

Today, we’re all team players … like it or not.

But as anyone who has ever played a group sport understands, teamwork takes work. You have to know how to play together or the whole thing is just one frustrating mess.

Working from Anywhere, Anytime

Team rules are especially important because many team members today are geographically dispersed.

Over the past four years in the U.S., the percentage of employees who work remotely 100 percent of the time has risen from 15 percent to 20 percent.

In addition, more than four in 10 (43 percent) of American employees work remotely at least part of the time, according to a February report from Gallup — and employees working remotely are spending more time doing so. As the report so obviously concludes, “The workplace is changing.”

The Growth of Virtual Teams

Because more people do their jobs virtually or remotely and at all hours of the day, co-workers have fewer face-to-face interactions. They communicate increasingly through email, instant messaging, conference calls and video chats.

There are obvious benefits: companies can not only hire the best person for a job, regardless of his physical location but also save money on office space. Employees gain greater independence and flexibility, which is especially important for the rapidly growing millennial workforce.

But as Rhucha Kulkarni explains in an article on HRTechnologist, new ways of working have given rise to novel employee engagement challenges.

“The new norms of freelance, part-time, remote, virtual, and such professionals makes it difficult for HR professionals to bring people together and knit them into high-performance teams. There is an increased chance that virtual workers may become disengaged simply because they are not ‘seen around’ enough, thereby missing out on opportunities to connect with colleagues and leadership,” she said.

Creating High Functioning Virtual Teams

So how do you transform a geographically dispersed workforce to a team?

Kulkarni suggests it starts with company culture. Businesses need to establish a common ground and common connections to make virtual team members feel the same degree of organizational belongingness as any other worker.

“Most importantly, efforts must be made to ensure that virtual team members share their purpose and ethos with the overall team, despite being virtually connected,” she wrote.

But that’s just the start.

Oren Greenberg, managing director and founder of London-based digital marketing consultancy Kurve, said it takes trust, communication, and technology.

Paul Miller, CEO and founder of the London-based Digital Workplace Group, adds persistence to the mix. Whether physical or virtual, teams need nurturing and strong leadership. This takes repeated, consistent actions to generate predictability and trust, he said.

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You also need to hire the right people. Look for trustworthy self-starters and proactive communicators who embrace your culture.

Team Building Basics

It’s hard to engage and align teams of any kind, according to researchers from the Wharton School’s Executive Development Program (EDP).

In “Committed Teams: Three Steps to Inspiring Passion and Performance,” Wharton’s Mario Moussa, Derek Newberry, and Madeline Boyer said well-structured teams generally outperform those with more raw talent — strength, skill or IQ. Take time to find the roles and structure that make sense for your team.

They also say it’s important to:

  • Avoid abstract goals: Make sure the primary, collective goals align with small, personal commitments that drive performance.
  • Resist making too many rules: Focus on the few rules that are likely to have the biggest impact information-sharing, decision-making, and conflict resolution.
  • Have frequent check-ins: They can be as simple as a weekly stand-up meeting.
  • Make sure everyone embraces the big picture: Work hard to get buy-in so that people want to come along with you.

Virtual Team Essentials

Companies with successful remote working environments and strong virtual teams tend to have certain things in common. These include structured plans and processes to effectively equip their remote employees.

  1. Adopt easy to use collaboration technology that can be accessed from anywhere.
  2. Create ways for employees to bond over shared interests to create deeper levels of cohesion, camaraderie, and trust.
  3. Over communicate. The more employees communicate, the closer they will feel as a team and the more productive the team will be.
  4. Have regularly scheduled meetings to maintain the normal rhythms of work life.
  5. Stay organized with team calendars
  6. Create a “virtual water cooler” — a virtual place for informal interactions to encourage friendly chatter
  7. Invest in the best audio and video technologies so everyone can be clearly seen and heard.
  8. Have monthly, quarterly or annual team meetings to bring everyone in the company together.
  9. Assume good intentions. Distance increases the risks of miscommunication. Before you assume what was implied in an email or chat, ask for clarification.
  10. Create an engaging recognition strategy.  Each person in the company should be commended for a job well done, regardless of where they work.

Above all, be human. Encourage everyone on the team to be authentic, honest and open.

As we like to say at ARKE, put people before the technology.

Noreen Seebacher is the content evangelist at Arke, where she researches, writes and continues her long career in news reporting as a brand journalist. Noreen lives in Beaufort, South Carolina with her husband, her dog and four formerly homeless cats.