Written with Jennifer Rasmussen
Your face to face kickoff meeting has just been deemed nonessential travel by the powers that be. The project, however, is just as essential as ever. The team members are scattered in offices all over the country. They’ve never met, seen, or heard each other, but they need to work as a unit. Getting them to gel together is your challenge.
Even managers who excel at team building in a live environment can find themselves frustrated when faced with a virtual team; yet fostering a strong team dynamic among people who never meet face to face is fast becoming a necessary skill. These five essential best practices will help you do it.
Communication is the most basic of management tools, and you probably think you have this one down. You know you need to include your team in project planning. You know you need to give timely feedback and immediate updates. But whatever your normal level of communication is, double it with your virtual team.
Clarity, frequency, and responsiveness are the keys. Experts will tell you that anywhere from 65-95 percent of communication is nonverbal. Yet for virtual team members, your words are often most or all of what they have to go on; they don’t necessarily have the opportunity to pick up on the nonverbal cues that make up so much of your message. So make sure your words are clear, and deliver them often. Because their isolation prevents them from coming across information in less formal ways, regular meetings via conference call or other technology are essential for virtual teams. Have them weekly, and keep the appointment, even if you don’t have any big news to report. Keep the agenda posted electronically in an area the whole team can access, and encourage them to add to it. Finally, make answering your virtual team members’ emails and phone calls a priority to make up for the fact that they can’t drop by your desk or catch you in the hall with a quick question.
This is not the same as communication. Communication is professional. Chatting is personal. If you don’t think personal communication is part of your business life, ask yourself if you’ve ever had lunch with a colleague, or stopped to ask how somebody was doing at the water cooler, or looked at the pictures on somebody’s desk. Although your team members hardly need to be kindred spirits to work well together, some level of personal interaction is crucial for team bonding. Virtual teams don’t have lunches together. They don’t share water coolers. They can’t see each other’s desks. Chat cannot easily happen organically, so you need to provide a mechanism for it. Have a virtual pizza party: send a pizza to each location at the same time, and get together in an internet chat session or conference call to gab. Call your team members once in a while just to catch up. There are countless creative ways to introduce chat into your team dynamics; but you must make a conscious effort to do so.
Change it up.
It’s the wealth of technology that we have at our fingertips that makes virtual teaming possible. Telephone and email are far from the only tools at your disposal. Instant messaging systems, collaboration software, group bulletin boards or discussion areas, and chat rooms are all useful for working and meeting together. Many of these tools can be obtained inexpensively or free. Learn what’s out there, and use it all. Vary your methods of communicating, and learn which methods work best for which team members. Some people love email; others prefer the phone. Finally, make sure you are using each type of technology appropriately for the purpose it’s best suited to. If one email has been forwarded and replied to several times among several people, you’d be better off moving the issue to a conference call or online discussion.
One of the most often neglected pieces to building a virtual team is providing a safe place for interaction and discussion without the manager. Whether it’s a regular conference call, a bulletin board, or a chat session, your team needs a “staff room” that isn’t accessible to you. Your live teams can take advantage of their proximity to have discussions about issues without you there, and in doing so they often develop ideas they might not feel comfortable bringing up and working through in your presence. Your virtual team needs the same opportunity. Some managers are uncomfortable creating a space that they can’t get into, but if you ignore this need you not only eliminate a chance for a more free change of ideas, you risk ending up with a team that’s bonded well with you, but not with one another.
Just because you aren’t there to take your team members out to lunch or just stop by to thank them for a job well done, doesn’t mean that everything you know about rewards and recognition doesn’t apply. Accomplishments must be acknowledged and celebrated, as a group when possible and appropriate. There are literally hundreds of ways to achieve this. Take the time to create a periodic newsletter and email or post it; be sure to have a section in it for accolades. Institute a peer-to-peer award system. Send virtual greeting cards or gift certificates from any of the dozens of websites dedicated to these purposes. Send them each a jar of jam when you reach a milestone. However you do it, just make sure you do.
The principles of managing virtual teams well are not much different from the principles of managing anybody or anything well. Apply two more C’s to these five: consistent and conscious. Practice them that way, and it can be virtually painless.
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