Technological change and the globalisation of business mean we will probably all work in a virtual team at some time. Well over half of us are doing so already.
While the debate goes on about whether virtual teams are more or less productive, efficient and responsive to customer needs, what is certain is that they’re here to stay. And while nothing can quite replicate face-to-face contact and the behavioural and emotional interaction and learning that comes with it, leaders are working hard at creating a different experience of the workplace that promotes efficient teams that are also happy and productive, innovative teams.
Technology has make collaboration across borders of time and geography relatively simple. Enterprise social networking software, screen sharing, document sharing and collaboration tools and online meeting platforms provide the means to create a sense of community. Making them available is a good start, and ensuring that they are extremely well supported is vital. Many will have experienced the frustration and time-wasting of virtual meetings hijacked by technical glitches. Excellent tech support and training for all users is non-negotiable for effective virtual teams
Whether being part of a virtual team means working from home a few days a week or managing people dispersed across the globe, there are challenges in communication, collaboration and leadership. Sharing information, integrating knowledge and achieving team cohesion are undoubtedly more difficult than in a face-to-face team. Simply using technology well won’t solve these issues. There must be attention to the interpersonal dimensions of a virtual team.
In a healthy team, conversations are encouraged and knowledge is shared. Expectations are clear and roles are made explicit. Team members feel heard. This may be a little harder when some members are at home or in another city or country, but it can be done. From simple things like sharing photos of the team and their locations, to drawing up and agreeing to rules for virtual meetings (no multitasking, give everybody a turn to speak, turn webcam on at all times, for starters) to hosting virtual team building sessions, work at it.
• focus on both technology and interpersonal competence
• encourage respect for other cultures and languages
• promote diversity as a strength
• build trust between team members
• build trust between themselves and their team members
• ensure technical support is available
• facilitate training in technology and people skills
• recognise and reward efforts and results right across the team.
Team members must:
• dial in to meetings and events on time and respond to chat and requests for collaboration
• be aware of body language – slumping, eye rolling and smirking are just as impolite and destructive in a virtual meeting
• observe the same manners as in a face-to-face situation – don’t get up and walk around, check Facebook, or make a phone call
• ask for advice and help from your dispersed team members
• be ready to learn from one another, not just about the mechanics of the job but also about values and attitudes
• celebrate diversity, for example by learning about one another’s public holidays, religious festivals, birthday traditions and so on.