Collaborating in virtual teams, often across large distances, has become the new normal in today’s global marketplace, but it doesn’t have to be lonely or isolating. With the right attitude and tools, linking up in cyberspace can create a feeling of community and nurture true friendships.
When offices across the world sent their employees home to take precautions against Covid-19, millions of people were suddenly thrown into the unfamiliar dynamic of remote work. For those used to constant, face-to-face interaction, working virtually can take some adjustment. But as those who regularly work on remote teams know, it can be successful both personally and professionally.
Members of Wärtsilä’s Communications and Branding network are based all around the world, and they know how to make distance work.
Dinesh Subramaniam, Director, Digital and Communications, oversees the complex network that involves around 50 people worldwide. The group is divided into geographical regions, which conduct structured regional virtual meetings twice a quarter, and there are also calls among the entire global group in the last month of the quarter.
In a company that has over 19,000 employees and operations in more than 200 locations worldwide, it would be an impossible task – even for the communicators – to stay up to date on everything that’s going on without active sharing among their network.
“We not only share information from the central team about new developments, but also encourage our country communicators to share updates, events, successes that took place in their countries so that their counterparts are able to learn from them or even replicate them if need be,” Subramaniam says.
For example, thanks to this kind of sharing, an employee nutrition campaign in Italy was successfully repeated in Spain. In another project, communicators worked together to spread the word within the company about the benefits of indirect purchasing.
In between these formal meetings, Subramaniam encourages the kind of casual conversations you might have with an officemate, even if these take place over chat rather than in person.
Fernanda Castro, a Communications and Branding Coordinator based in Rio de Janeiro, says she is in frequent contact with the members of her team in the Americas region.
“Whenever I have an idea, whenever I have a doubt, I catch them on WhatsApp,” Castro says. “We exchange a lot.”
Just like a regular office setting, the team members get to know each other through these kinds of conversations. And sometimes they get to reinforce these connections by meeting up in person.
Emanuela Fregonese, Communications and Branding Manager for Wärtsilä Italy, had just this experience.
“Last summer, a colleague from the Netherlands came to Italy for a holiday, and we arranged to meet face-to-face. We took a photo and sent it to the WhatsApp group that unites our global communicators’ network,” she says.
Subramaniam recounts how an in-person meeting helped change the culture of the team.
In April 2018, he gathered several communicators from around the world to a meeting in Helsinki. The purpose was to overhaul the majority of the regional- and country-focused communication processes. Rather than taking a top-down approach, he thought it would be best to engage the expertise of the people who were responsible for implementing the processes and activities in their countries and regions.
The three-day get-together was intense – kicking off at 8am and ending at 6pm – as was the socialising, he says. The result of that face-to-face meeting was a radical change in the chemistry between the network members involved – in addition to a new look for nearly 12 country-focused activities.
“Before this group of 16 came together a couple of years ago, many of them didn't know one another. Of course, they spoke with one another on a monthly basis, but only within a particular region,” Subramaniam says. Since the meeting, even the remote conversations are “very active, open and no-holds-barred.”
Fernanda Castro agrees that the opportunity to occasionally connect in person helps.
“Once you’ve met someone in person, it's easier to approach them,” Castro notes. “You have the opportunity to be more relaxed, avoiding too much formality, especially when you have to ask a silly question.”
The team members say that keeping the conversation relaxed is critical to making the most of remote work situations. Another important tip: use your screen as a bridge rather than as a barrier – engage with others on the call. Turning on your camera helps with that.
Fregonese says that just like in a regular office environment, being part of a close-knit team with similar values makes her work more productive and enjoyable.
“I’m lucky because the Communications and Branding group is made up of people with strong values, and they have the spirit of cooperation in their blood. For this reason, the distances don't seem so far,” she says. “I can’t imagine my daily work without this kind of collaboration. You can do things all by yourself, but you give added value to your daily work if you cooperate, particularly if this cooperation is within an international team. Cooperation really is our strength.”