Managing virtual teams emerged as a key topic again at a recent Future Marketing Manager course http://www.pmforum.co.uk/training/) As professional service firms become larger and more global it is an increasing challenge. So I have summarised the previous guidance and added new insights into this short guide – Eight steps to manage virtual teams.
1. Check team goals, structure and composition
Whether you have inherited an existing team or formed a new team you need to consider its goals, structure and composition. There may be people with different levels of expertise and seniority and those from rather different cultural backgrounds.
The purpose and aims of the team need to be clear as well as the rules of engagement or terms of reference. Sometimes these need to be discussed and agreed by the team. The roles of individuals – particularly if there are conflicts and overlaps – need to be understood.
Time may be needed for members of the team to develop their understanding of others’ roles and the environments of other members so that they can understand the context and different perspectives. Activities to promote empathy and mutual understanding are therefore recommended.
Personality and style will affect how people participate in group discussions – some may be more extrovert and confident than others. Personality assessments may be helpful in understanding the differences, strengths and weaknesses of group members (for one personality assessment – NEO – see http://kimtasso.com/personality-assessment-as-part-of-the-coaching-and-development-process/. Assessments such as Belbin or Deloitte’s Business Chemistry can help understand how different members work within a team environment.
You will need to appreciate the impact of culture on how people participate in team discussions. For example, in some cultures people will not want to be seen to criticise the work of more senior people. In other cultures, you would not be expected to divulge personal information in a work environment. (see http://kimtasso.com/cross-cultural-communication/ and http://kimtasso.com/intercultural-working-some-insights/)
Understand too that it takes time for a group of people to become a team and work productively – moving through the stages of forming, storming, norming and performing. And this time can be longer when people are physically and psychologically distant.
2. Start by forming personal relationships
While team members may be geographically dispersed, it is helpful if the team leader takes time to visit each person in their home territory.
Face-to-face communication is shown to be most effective at creating and sustaining business relationships. Research has shown that a request for help that is made face-to-face is 34 times more likely to be accepted. One of the reasons for this is that it becomes easier face-to-face is that you can use cues from non-verbal communication (NVC) to obtain additional information about what people are thinking and feeling (see http://kimtasso.com/faq/how-can-non-verbal-communication-body-language-improve-my-marketing-and-personal-effectiveness/)
It is important not to make assumptions. People have different experiences and views of the world. They look at things through a different lens to us. So start relationships by building empathy by asking questions of team members about their thoughts and views. I am reminded of the Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz:
- Be impeccable with your word
- Don’t take anything personally
- Don’t make assumptions
- Always do your best
3. Establish trust
It is hard to establish rapport, trust and a relationship without regular face time and opportunities for small talk. So you may have to find alternative ways to create rapport and trust at a distance.
It is suggested that team leaders visit each team member in their home environment at least once. Other strategies include hosting teleconferences in different locations to provide a platform for different team members.
Swift trust is relevant in new groups – people are usually willing to give others the benefit of the doubt. It’s the honeymoon phase of a relationship. It is particularly true where there is pressure for the team to deliver fast results. Swift trust can be leveraged if the team leader promotes the competence of the different team members at the start of interactions. Sharing information about similarities in personal interests can lead to greater interpersonal trust as well as we tend to trust others who we perceive to be similar to us (this links to group identity and in-group theories).
It is also worth remembering that if you want the virtual team to contribute to brainstorming and creative discussions there needs to be the right environment. The work of psychologist Nancy Kline in her book “Time to think” shows that the 10 criteria for a good environment are almost the opposite of those found in Western, masculine work environments.
Trust is explored in more detail here http://kimtasso.com/trust-better-business-relationships/
4. Call before and after on-line meetings
The team leader can have a big impact on team performance and the effectiveness of on-line meetings if he or she allocates time to call individuals in advance of each meeting to gauge their reaction to the agenda and learn about their views on a one-to-one basis.
This means that they can prompt individuals during group discussions to share their views or the team leader can share views to ensure that potentially contentious topics are raised anonymously. These calls also allow for exploration of personal issues that may affect team dynamics and performance.
It also means that the team leader can learn more about the particular skills, expertise and experience of each team member and help them with their personal development. It should also provide insight into what motivates each team member so that style, content and interaction can be tailored to improve engagement.
The process can be repeated after group calls to thank people for their contributions (recognition and appreciation are important for motivation) and to follow up on points raised by individuals or to gain more insight into how the individual reacted to the group discussion.
Team leaders should also make a habit of telephoning or emailing at other times to check-in on each team member so that they feel recognised and consulted in between group meetings. Team leaders should make themselves available and accessible for people to contact either formally or informally in between group meetings as well. Some team leaders will use chat platforms at regular times – including in those in other time zones – which makes it easier for team members to know when approaches, questions or informal comments might be welcomed.
5. Use the telephone rather than email
Where face-to-face meetings are not possible, the next best form of communication is voice-to-voice through the telephone as it is more interactive than email http://kimtasso.com/pick-phone-creating-better-business-relationships-telephones/
Some firms schedule social calls. This is where the content of the calls is not about work or project issues but focused on the individuals – to encourage the sort of chit-chat that happens in an office environment. The idea is to create the sort of space that you would usually have in a face-to-face meeting where people might connect emotionally while chatting during refreshment and other breaks.
However, in many professional service firms – where the focus is on billable hours – this may be hard to justify. However, it should be remembered that often teams who work together will organise (and the firm will contribute to the costs of) social events such as drinks, quizzes, outings and sports events that are not possible for those working remotely.
Other firms insist that people always participate on conference calls using video screens. Partly this is to ensure that the people are properly engaged and present in the meeting (and not working on their PCs or attending to their mobile phones). And partly because it allows everyone to connect names to faces and assess non-verbal communication.
Another way to prompt informal social bonds might be to establish private on-line communities where people share thoughts, photos or videos relating to their personal interests or their locations. Some groups have shared holiday photos (and provide ideas for those visiting familiar locations) and even recipes to encourage group sharing and bonding.
In counselling, meetings always start with a check-in where each person briefly describes how they are feeling and whether there is anything on their mind. Team leaders will need to act as role models by initiating such sharing and revealing some vulnerability to help others feel that it is a psychologically-safe environment to do so. These personal revelations act both to bond the group members and allow others to understand whether anything external is affecting that person during the meeting.
Meetings can also close with a check-out too to see how people feel at the end of the session and to confirm that all relevant points have been covered.
Another approach is for those leading group conversations to break up discussions on work content and encourage people “to take five” to chat about things informally. This can often have a snowballing effect by encouraging others to open up and share similar experiences. As well as providing time for people to reflect on what has been discussed it also allows a little mental space to get ready to tackle the next topic of formal content. It acts as a mental breather and aids relaxation and later focus.
Storytelling is a powerful way to communicate and create emotional connections (http://kimtasso.com/selling-legal-services-storytelling/).
Alternative ways to promote social interaction might be for each meeting to be chaired or hosted by a different team member who allocates a small amount of time to talking about something that is important to them. Or perhaps by always having a “spotlight on” session where different team members talk about something of their choosing.
Share and rotate power by moving away from centralised leadership and allowing different team members to take the lead on particular discussions. This is easily achieved if the lead of the discussion is recognised as an expert or with relevant experience in the topic up for discussion.
6. Agree rules of engagement with email
Where email has to be used – establish guidelines. For example, indicate when emails should be sent or copied to everyone and when they should be focused.
Rules also avoid people being upset by “micromoves” – small actions or behaviours that seem inconsequential in the moment but affect how we related to one another. For example, some might perceive a slow delay in responding is in some way a negative response. So agree what response times are expected – or perhaps establish a system of priorities.
People tend to appraise situations as either good or bad so they can act on opportunities and threats. Work relationships are not fixed – we can take healthy relationships for granted and fail to repair those that are damaged. And respect is a culturally-dependent construct which might differ between team members.
To promote relationships, suggest the extent to which less formal communication styles can be adopted. Be clear on views of using casual language (e.g. “Hi”) and even such things as emojis.
Consider alternatives to email such as group WhatsApp or other chat platforms which are often less formal and more conversational and personal. Avoid email overload by adopting online collaborative workspaces such as HighIQ.
Everyone should be encouraged to update their out-of-office messages regularly to show when they will be available on the telephone, on-line and on other communication platforms. Some teams establish core hours when everyone needs to be available.
7. Use inclusive language
Always use the inclusive “we” when talking about the team to encourage a sense of community. Take care to use gender-neutral language and avoid using colloquialisms that may not be understood by those from different cultures. So think carefully about what you say and how you say it.
8. Communicate regularly
Communication is the lifeblood of relationships. Where people are physically together there will be all manner of interactions throughout the working day. These don’t happen when people are separated by geography and time zones so more effort has to be made to encourage such informal communications where relationships and even friendships are created.
Furthermore, it can be lonely to work separated from colleagues. And excessive feelings of isolation can lead to stress. People with strong workplace friendships feel less isolated, more focused and loyal, get sick less often and do not change jobs frequently, Meaningful work and social connections can even prevent poor mental health and depression (see http://kimtasso.com/book-review-lost-connections-why-youre-depressed-and-how-to-find-hope-by-johann-hari/)
So regular communication can help alleviate some of the downsides of working distantly. See further information on stress here http://kimtasso.com/creativity-7-creativity-good-bad-stress/ and http://kimtasso.com/crazy-busy-overstretched-overbooked-and-about-to-snap-book-review/) and how team leaders can help build resilience in team members (http://kimtasso.com/10-tips-to-increase-your-resilience/).
These things take time. And time is money. So you have to make a commitment to invest in developing and maintaining healthy relationships. Communication – both formal and informal – and within the whole team and between members – is the main way to do this. As well as measuring how individuals contribute to the performance of the team on its results and outcomes, it is worth considering measures and assessments that include things like team communication, contribution and sharing.
Some of these topics are explored further in related blogs including:
Be more visible http://kimtasso.com/be-more-visible-the-pvi-model/
Better business relationships http://kimtasso.com/publications/better-business-relationships/
Emotional contagion http://kimtasso.com/emotional-contagion-delegation-coaching-team-meetings/
How to facilitate groups http://kimtasso.com/how-to-facilitate-groups/
Managing teams and virtual teams http://kimtasso.com/managing-teams-and-virtual-teams/