It is amazing how quickly technology has changed the world of work. It is no longer unusual to form virtual teams for completing specific projects or for that matter, to create an entire business consisting of online teams. Because virtual teams generally communicate electronically, seldom, if ever, meet face-to-face. and often work in different time zones, different cultures, and may speak different languages, managing them presents leaders with a set of challenges beyond those of managing an in-house team.
Team members who work in the same physical location naturally and unconsciously communicate on multiple levels. When reviewing projects or attending meetings they observe their leader’s and their peers’ non-verbal cues such as body language, eye contact (or lack of same), personal clothing style, and tone of voice. In casual interaction they might share a meal, or cup of coffee, or learn of the birth of a child or the death of a parent. All of these interactions serve to form a bond and develop a level of trust among the team members. Trust is the core value that facilitates the sharing of knowledge; the sharing of knowledge is the fuel that propels creativity, innovation, and productivity.
Virtual teams are limited, almost entirely, to electronic communications such as email, teleconferencing, and phone conversations. Relationships are less easily formed and information is not transmitted through casual interpersonal contact. Building relationships and trust among the members of such teams must be consciously addressed and facilitated.
It is helpful to focus on the elements that contribute to the establishment of trust and create conscious strategies to encourage their development. Some of these important elements are:
When introducing team members, define their roles and outline the skills that they bring to the group. As you move forward provide training when necessary and adjust roles if needed to better match skills to job requirements. Mutual respect for the competence of teammates is necessary to develop trust.
Knowledge sharing is vital to the success or any working team. Foster a climate of cooperation rather than competitiveness to give team members the confidence to share their valuable knowledge and expertise.
Emphasize the need to follow through on commitments. Each team member relies on the work of the other members. Every unmet commitment frustrates all participants and can eventually lead to disengagement. Clarify and track commitments with a method that is accessible to the group and have regular status meetings to address progress. Make timely adjustments as necessary.
Do you and your team members regularly acknowledge the contributions of others? Acknowledging the trust that people express by contributing fully to the team encourages others to follow their lead. Always give credit where credit is due.
Inconsistent participation or performance can be a sign of lack of engagement. Establish a rhythm to team interaction by clarifying expected response times and scheduling routine meetings for the same day and time each week. If you are working in different time zones rotate meeting times to accommodate a different member each week.
Keep all team members informed of developments and feedback regarding any project they are participating in and any company or organizational developments that will peripherally affect them or their projects. Remember, they have no access to the normal office “grapevine.” They rely completely on their leader to keep them in the loop.
Let your team know that you are approachable and encourage them to develop open and friendly communication among themselves. Don’t let tasks monopolize meetings and communications. Discuss the overview of projects, ask for opinions, have brainstorming sessions, congratulate and thank the group and individual members on accomplishments. In discussing progress ask for individual status and offer help to anyone who seems bogged down.Even asking about the weather in their location of commenting about it in yours can add a bit of humanity to communication.
When working remotely it is all too easy to focus exclusively on the work at hand, forgetting the pleasure and camaraderie that accompany traditional working relationships. Kindness, humor, curiosity, and acknowledgement of and concern for the feelings of others all have a place in the virtual world, just as they do in the traditional workplace. Welcome them into your virtual communications. Friendship and trust will soon follow.