Casting your net to connect on a virtual team

If you have a team member (or members) that you rarely see face-to-face, who live and work in a different geographical location (and that can be in the next building!), that you communicate with through phone, email or other technology, then you are part of one of the many virtual teams that I encounter every single day.  I have been asked to work with a leader in a major healthcare organization who is looking to strengthen his virtual team.  In preparing for that session I started to reflect on my experience of virtual teams, what works, and what doesn’t.

Virtual teams are a way of life for many of us.  The concept may not be given a second thought, that is, unless you are “the virtual team member”.  When I ask my clients how they would describe being part of a virtual team the picture is not pretty.  I will often hear the following:

Lonely, fragmented, dysfunctional, challenging, insensitive, lacking team spirit, or comments along the lines of ”What team?  It’s OK for those in the office, for the rest of us, it is out of sight out of mind.”

Which got me to thinking. Does it have to be this way?

I am part of a virtual team, my company is global and our team members are all based out of their own home offices.  Where we can, we try to come together regularly, whether that is through co-facilitating programs, speaking at conferences, or simply through the use of webcams and technology.  When a virtual team is located across multiple time-zones, languages and cultures the challenges can be exacerbated, the good news is that members of a virtual team can experience the camaraderie and high performance of a co-located team.  It simply requires care and attention.

Here are my six tips to set your virtual team up for success:

  • Create opportunities to get to know the people on the team. Learn about hobbies and life outside of work. Start each meeting with the opportunity for “small-talk” which can have a big-impact on the social bonds between team members.  What do they do for fun? When are they at their best?
  • Seek to understand the different perspectives of each team member.  By this I mean culture, values, expectations.  How business is conducted and how this might influence the way meetings and conversations happen online.
  • Remember the small stuff. When we are co-located in an office it’s easy to swing by someone’s desk and catch up. To wish them “Happy Birthday” to suggest they leave early on a Friday afternoon, or to remind them that you will be out of the office on Tuesday morning.  Doing this with virtual team members simply requires you to focus.  Set yourself a reminder if you need to, but share the ‘office news’ and ensure that you are not simply calling your remote team members when you need something.
  • Strive for Inclusiveness. If you are having bagels served in a breakfast meeting (for your timezone) find a way to get snacks delivered to others on the call (for whom it may be afternoon). Taking a little time and effort to ensure an inclusive approach will differentiate your leadership, and build team bonds.
  • Bring the team together. Notwithstanding the potential cost, you can’t beat bringing the team together face to face.  Whether it is once a year or more frequently this can go a long way to establishing the basis for a strong and cohesive team.  Be creative, don’t simply select corporate HQ for the convenience, look at other opportunities and locations, maybe a conference that you will be attending.  When you do get together don’t just cram the agenda full of “business items” the WHAT needs to be achieved, build in time for team building, the HOW stuff will get done and the team will work together. I always include “white space” in SkyeTeam High Performing Team sessions, time with NOTHING on the agenda where team members can be sent off in pairs or small groups to explore the city and to simply chat and get to know one another.
  • Use technology sensitively.  Technology continues to accelerate it’s impact and ability to aid virtual teams.  I use a service called uberconference for our webinars and telephone conferences.  It allows those attending to register and upload a photo so you can “see” who is participating.  What I particularly like, is whether someone registers or not, the technology highlights the phone number (or picture) of the person that is talking in the moment – it is very neat, no more embarrassing moments of “Was that Mary or Fiona speaking there?”  When I am on a conference call, especially if I have a group of people in a live meeting room, I like to make the rules of engagement explicit. I will often start by letting the people on the phone know that “they have the  power” that if at anytime they have something they want to add they simply need to start talking or make a noise, and we in the conference room will defer to them.  You know what I mean, when we are face to face we see the body language, we tend to talk and forget about the people on the phone.  Give them priority, keep them involved and you will benefit from their insight and contributions.

In my experience the tools and tactics that we use in our high performing team sessions are as applicable in a virtual team. It is that the implementation and execution of them has to happen louder, more consistently and with discipline.  The first time you say “Oh I am so sorry I forgot to include you / send you the information / to let you know..” will not only damage your credibility as a leader, it will damage the commitment to and sense of team.

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