Untangle your Virtual Team with 10 Most-Needed Norms

Precious few virtual teams have explicit team norms, even for aspects of teamwork where the absence of shared norms can really trip a team up. Excuses include: “When would we have time to talk this through?” “Everyone pretty much knows how we need to work.” “We’re too busy.” And my favorite: “It’s too late to go backwards.”

And yet, when I ask virtual teams about the toughest communication problems they wrestle with, pretty much all of them could be resolved, at least in part, with the creation of shared operating principles. Examples:

  • Some people always join our team meetings late, and we waste a lot of time rehashing what we just covered
  • It takes me forever to read through all of the emails I get, and more than half of them are totally irrelevant to my work
  • My manager and teammates interrupt my work with a steady stream of IMs all day and get mad when I don’t reply right away
  • It takes me forever to find the most current team documents

It’s true that all teams work better with clear operating principles. But virtual teams suffer much more without them. That’s because they have so few opportunities to identify, and then successfully address, miscues and missteps that inevitably result when people have different ideas about how they need to work together.

In this edition of Communique, I provide 10 “best practices” norms that can do the most to save time, reduce frustration and boost productivity of virtual teams. Extracted from one of our virtual workshops that help people design and run more engaging virtual meetings, these examples include specific actions that can support each one. For this piece, I touch on virtual meetings, decision-making, the use of email, shared documents and scheduling, areas for which a lack of explicit norms can cause especially thorny problems for virtual teams.

  1. Everyone participates fully in every team meeting they attend. This means that: Everyone stays off mute, so we can all hear what’s going on, and so people can jump in more easily. Desks, screens and minds are cleared to focus on the conversation at hand. Multitasking is not acceptable, except for “multitasking on task,” such as adding ideas to our virtual conference area or jotting down questions on a shared whiteboard. If you’re pulled by competing priorities and can’t participate fully, you may need to opt out of a given meeting and catch up on your own later on.
  2. We design meetings to maximize active participation. This means that: We follow the 80/20 rule – our meetings are 80% active and 20% passive. We don’t bore meeting participants by showing slides or reviewing documents that can be sent and reviewed before the meeting. Instead, we create our agendas so people can converse on important topics, exchanging ideas, offering suggestions, or seeking guidance. We change activities every 5-7 minutes to keep people engaged, and constantly look for new ways to add vitality to each meeting.
  3. We give equal regard to remote and co-located participants. This means that: We incorporate all participants equally into the conversation. We call on remote participants first when going around the table. Onsite participants maintain respectful etiquette, including no sidebar conversations, no putting the speakerphone on mute, no food or beverages near speakers, and saying names before speaking. Whenever possible, we create a truly level playing field by having all participants meet remotely, even when some are able to be onsite together.
  4. Meetings begin and end on time. This means that: The meeting leader starts on time, even if several people are running late. If you arrive late, you are responsible for catching up on your own time; those who came on time are not responsible for repeating what you missed. Meeting leaders need to be realistic about what can reasonably be accomplished within the allotted time, which may mean holding more frequent meetings, longer meetings, have fewer invitees, rescope objectives, insist on more prework, or some combination of these things. Meeting leaders end on time, even if all objectives have not been achieved.
  5. We provide sufficient time and adequate information to enable well-informed decision-making. This means that: We provide information (e.g. pointers, documents) that people need to digest and reflect on in advance, so people feel prepared to make a logical decision when the time comes. Everyone understands and agrees what criteria will be used to make decisions. We allocate sufficient time for making important decisions, which may mean multiple or extended discussions. We blend asynchronous and synchronous forms of participation to make it easier for everyone to contribute to the discussion, regardless of location or time zone.
  6. Important decisions and their expected impact are communicated to all affected team members at the same time. This means that: All team members, regardless of their proximity and role, are notified at the same time. We resist the temptation to tell those closest to us first. We leave nothing to chance and orchestrate communications carefully, which means giving team members a heads-up about the expected day/time of the team call. We anticipate questions and concerns by those most affected, and come prepared with credible responses.
  7. Emails are used primarily to inform and alert, versus to distribute documents. This means that: Emails are kept brief, typically to one screen or less. Links are included for additional information, rather than attachments. Team documents are stored in a shared portal area that everyone can easily access. Document owners are responsible for keeping the portal up to date with latest revs of documents. Team members are responsible for accessing documents on their own via the team portal and for setting alerts when newer information is available.
  8. We use “to” and “cc” email lists with intention. This means that: We define what it means to be on the “to” list vs. a “cc” list. People on the “to” list are required to read the email and take a particular action, which will be clearly stated in the first line of the email. People who are cc’d can opt to read, file away or delete the email; no action is required. We think carefully about who needs to take action and who should simply be copied, and share our rationale with the whole team in advance to minimize hurt feelings. We welcome feedback from fellow team members if they feel they should be on a different list for future related communications.
  9. We make it easy and fast for team members to respond to emails. This means that: We use subject lines that are brief and descriptive. We flag when a request is urgent by denoting a “U” in the subject line. An “urgent” request requires a reply within no more than four hours, and sometimes sooner. We have a shared understanding of the difference between urgent and merely important. We use bullets or numbers instead of long paragraphs, and embed links for additional information. We confine emails to one major topic, to make filing and accessing each email easier later on. When responding to an email request, we revise the subject line so the recipients can read the “short story” without needing to open the email.
  10. Team members rely on shared Outlook calendars to schedule meetings. This means that: Time shown as “available” in calendars is fair game for scheduling meetings. We agree in advance whose participation is required, optional or merely desirable, and indicate as such in meeting requests. We mark off blocks of time we need to get work done. We note vacation time, holidays and appointments in our calendars. Weekends and local holidays are assumed to be excluded from available time unless otherwise noted. We RSVP to a meeting request ASAP, rather than forcing the meeting organizer to send another round of invitations. If we must decline, we indicate our reasons, so the meeting organizer will know for next time.

When working with people you rarely see face-to-face, assume that all ground rules and operating norms need to be spelled out and worked through explicitly. Ideally, you’ll invest the time in such discussions as a new team springs to life, but in fact, it’s only after a team has worked together for at least a little while that the need for certain ground rules becomes clearer. Caucus the team to discover which aspects of teamwork will improve the most with clear operating norms, and start there, adding more as your team gets the hang of it. Download this handy template to get you started.


Find out more about how our interactive virtual workshops provide participants with skills, tools and tips they need to plan and run highly engaging virtual meetings and lead happy, successful virtual teams.

Jumpstart new norms for your virtual team – examples and template

See our related Communiques: Ten must-know email tips for teams to make an impact and get results,  and Eight essential ground rules for great remote meetings

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