The SMART workplace is virtually mobile, organizationally attached, and leads an engaged employee workforce. It’s good to connect through common tools; it’s better to become a network of interacting teams. Virtual collaboration tools have changed how teams operate and managers lead. Last week’s case study demonstrated how simple tools and a willing team can grow their organization while easing their workload at the same time – a real life example of doing more with less. A strong, co-located team grew stronger.

When a team is virblog12 img3tual, however, it has a difficult time seeing itself as a part of a larger community that is moving together for a common purpose. Robust, structured communication systems and team ground rules help, but it’s also important to help each team member know the “whole” team – or network of teams. Everyone needs to understand – and see – how individuals contribute to the team’s work and how teams impact the organizational community. Since collaboration is the new competitive advantage, we have no choice but to connect the virtual worker to organization purpose and other team members.

An engaged, collaborative mobile workforce is critical to delivering great results. It IS more challenging when motivating teams across virtual distance. Exceptional results are only possible when people choose to expend discretionary effort – the very definition of employee engagement.  Engaging people in their work, their projects and their teams – that is the work of team leaders. One of the reasons virtual teams sometimes fail to become synergistic teams is because we have failed to recognize a deep and invisible truth –

The truth is…  Most work gets done through relationship, not task assignment.

Teamwork is fundamentally social.

All team relationships need care and feeding, whether virtual or not. Virtual team members do need special care, however. Virtual managers don’t need to become den mothers, but they must take extra care to check in and provide support for virtual teams. Support can be as simple as task clarification or providing shift coverage.

People tend to be loyal to team leaders with whom they have a good relationship. Commitment deepens when members also have strong relationships with each other, not communicating through the team leader. Most people want to be part of a temporary “community” that has shared purpose, clear responsibilities, shared team rituals and habits and history.

So the work world is mobile, teams are virtual, and employee engagement is linked to strong relationships with team managers.

And YET… Organizations seldom offer lifelong employment anymore.

This inhibits employee loyalty and full engagement, the willingness to expend extra effort. Many professionals feel they are on their own professionally and every team is a temporary assignment. Team and organizational leaders must tap motivation and engage people differently.

So, professionals are learning to go it alone, leaders are learning to engage and everyone needs to learn to collaborate.

Can we?

Are organizations adapting to engage loose-tie employees while deployed, knowing they will often leave the organization, and increasingly often, becoming boomerang employees – people who come and go – and come back.

blog 15 img2Business loyalties are based on weak ties, especially in an increasingly virtual, temporary work world where teams and work assignments change often so members don’t know each other as well, at least initially. It is true that employee engagement, the kind needed to produce great results, is seldom achieved despite cultural commitments made by well intention-ed organization leaders.

Many people believe employee engagement is too challenging in a virtual team. “It’s hard enough to engage employees’ in the office, let alone virtually. Look at Yahoo! Why even try?”

These people are wrong. We can learn how to form virtual teams quickly with relative strangers, often developing into strong relationships that produce results. Instead of asking whether or not teams can be engaged virtually, SMART leaders ask:

How can I, as leader of virtual talent, create and maintain an engaged team culture and productive virtual team environment?

A SMART virtual team leader takes time to get to develop her team, and takes the time for his team to get to know each other and other key organization members. Engagement comes through strong relationships, beginning with the team-manager relationship and hopefully also developing strong team bonds. Help people become resources to one another, facilitating connected relationships and information flow with continuous conversation.

“Once we begin to see eachteam interaction meeting and email, each phone call and hall encounter or virtual chat as another episode in a stream of inextricably interrelated business conversations, we are able to begin making the kinds of demands and developing the kinds of expectations that will lead us to a far higher degree of effectiveness, both personally and professionally.” Bernie DeKoven

Bernie cogently reminds us that managers and team members who take the time to talk have an arsenal of knowledge to tap – for how best to hold one another accountable and work together better. Teams that take the time to build strong relationships – virtual or not – produce better results.

High performance teams work to a large degree through conversation. People learn to trust one another when they know each other. Getting people talking about something they care about gives conversations passion and creates something bigger than the words. Interested “talking” explores new territory and deepens understanding about each other’s work styles.

So how does a virtual manager encourage virtual conversation?twitter5android1_2040.0_cinema_1200.0

Simple. People hanging around talking on and off line isn’t a distraction. It’s the work of collaboration. If it isn’t happening, the virtual manager’s job is to stir things up. Get tongues wagging and fingers smoking on the keyboards. Build relationships as well as schedule meetings. Personal conversation woven into work communication should be encouraged (and practiced by the virtual manager!), especially for task-oriented teams.

When co-located, community grows more naturally simply by virtue of seeing one another every day. A virtual team leader needs to design opportunities for the virtual team to develop positive, shared experiences. Virtual employee engagement is not only possible, it’s inevitable with strong work relationships that connect us across distance.

Join us at The SMART Workplace in our conversation about workplaces that work for everyone, and invite others to join in what we’re talking about – Share this blog! Also mark November, 2016 when I release the digital version of Working Virtually: Leading Your Team, Career and Organization in a Mobile Work World, Stylus Publishing.

–    Trina Hoefling, Transformational Facilitator and Trainer, Co-Founder, The Smart Workplace