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. Theyve never met, seen, or heard each other, but
they need to work as a unit. Getting them to gel together is your
managers who excel at teambuilding 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.
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 dont 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 dont 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 cant 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 dont think personal communication
is part of your business life, ask yourself if youve ever
had lunch with a colleague, or stopped to ask how somebody was doing
at the water cooler, or looked at the pictures on somebodys
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 dont have lunches together.
They dont share water coolers. They cant see each others
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.
Its 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
whats 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 its
best suited to. If one email has been forwarded and replied to several
times among several people, youd 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 its a regular conference call, a bulletin
board, or a chat session, your team needs a staff room
that isnt 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 cant 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 thats bonded well
with you, but not with one another.
Just because you arent there to take your team members out
to lunch or just stop by to thank them for a job well done, doesnt
mean that everything you know about rewards and recognition doesnt
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.
principles of managing virtual teams well are not much different
from the principles of managing anybody or anything well. Apply
two more Cs to these five: consistent and conscious. Practice
them that way, and it can be virtually painless.
2001 Jennifer Rasmussen, All Rights Reserved.
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