Working within virtual teams is a ubiquitous reality for most organisations today. However, when people think of virtual teams, they think of everything that can go wrong and fear the disadvantages of working this way instead of looking at its potential.
While it’s true that virtual teams do not function like collocated teams, there are also many advantages that virtual teams bring to the picture, and there is true potential for excellence in them when they are properly organised and managed. So, what are the steps you should take to achieve this?
In one sentence, the essence of running virtual teams is to focus at all times on creating a shared mind and a shared heart.
How do you do that?
• When setting up and leading the team, pay equal attention to hardware (how you structure the process) and software (how you run the process and create the atmosphere).
• Make it personal while keeping it professional! In the beginning of the process, this should be the motto of all of the meetings. Keep your goals at two levels:
(1) making the team click, by
(2) creating a common understanding of why they are there and what they need to do.
• Make sure that technology is in place to support sharing information and building a team identity. Choose the technology according to the purpose you want it to serve. First clarify what you want it to do for you − there is always a solution when you know what to ask for!
Computer-mediated communication does not mean you communicate with a computer!
• Create virtual coffee corners (including informal moments during meetings) to boost informal information-sharing and relationship building. Set up joint activities and moments in the virtual world to replace the function performed by the real-world coffee corner or the after-hours drinks. Virtual teamwork need not be, and should not be, just a dry, task-only endeavour − the interpersonal, social side of the interaction needs to be present and nourished.
• Make sure you really know the resources you have in the team (team members should know each other’s capabilities, realities and constraints) and use them well. Get people to share information (even non-work related) on a constant basis − creating redundancy in communication is key to adapting to crisis in virtual teams.
• Touch base periodically (e.g. by making informal calls to team members).
• Play and fun go a long way! Play online games together as virtual teambuilding, and remember to ease the atmosphere with jokes and humour occasionally. A lot of conflict is prevented with a funny retort at the right time.
• Remember: Trust is built online by delivering on tasks, and early wins are a key to building motivation from a distance. Therefore, organise the process in such a way as to have these early wins.
Leading a virtual team requires a paradox of competences, which are rarely found in one person. On the one hand, you need the ability to create a comprehensive structure and thorough planning upfront in order to create the conditions for the work to start. On the other hand, you also need the ability to let go, to decentralise both communication and coordination and allow the emergent processes to grow in their own way.
• Try to be both a skilled and thorough planner and centraliser and, at the same time, an inclusive facilitator who can become part of the background.
• If you’re not a digital native, learn to live online and monitor yourself and the process more frequently. Or team up with a millennial!