This is the final blog post that wraps up our series of The SMART Workplace Lessons Learned from Early Adopters. Use technology to strengthen your team relationships.

I wrote about expanding emotional bandwidth to build swift trust on high-performing virtual teams in 2008, something I’d always observed, practiced and continue to emphasize today. In fact, today’s professional must be able to establish and solidify high-trust professional relationships quickly. Contrary to what seems obvious, the more interdependent a team is, the more likely they will succeed when they become a virtual team. The high-performance virtual team leverages technology to connect, produce, and engage with each other. This is not optional.

Today’s workplace is structured in a way that makes work easier to get done using technologies that unleash the core skills of each team member. We have more than enough tools to send information back and forth to people all over the world. 60% of all organizations (public, private, and nonprofit) have virtual private networks and collaborative software and tools, such as Microsoft 365. That’s a dramatic increase from 17% when I wrote the 1st edition of Working Virtually in 1999.

The technology has pretty much caught up with the virtual collaboration promise. Some teams excel at using collaborative tools than others, but most teams underutilize them. Even collocated teams are operationally structured similarly to MS365, so I’ll use it to describe a simple virtual office. Your virtual office may include many apps integrated on one of a few platforms, though minimally your team will have a place to

  • store and collaborate on documents
  • chat and web conference
  • hold and manage threaded discussions
  • manage shared calendars.

Here’s a basic Microsoft 365 diagram that easily shows the virtual team’s back office infrastructure:

Now that we know that, let’s look at 4 simple ways to embed mobility and flexibility into your team’s mindset.

Force the issue. Change habits.

A few years ago, Hurricane Sandy forced Guardian Life Insurance CEO and president, Deanna Mulligan, to change a habit that had been deeply entrenched in her way of working. Before Hurricane Sandy, she was paper dependent. Because of Sandy, Mulligan started using a productivity tool to store and manage information, and that changed everything. “My whole life is on Evernote,” she says – her schedule, contacts, annual report, reference materials for boards she sits on, and personal notes. No more paper. It opened the door to paperless collaboration, and today Guardian has shifted culturally and operationally to value and support how people work best, instead of where they work. Employees connect with their work and the organization instead of their space.

Teach people to drive.

When we at the SMART Workplace conduct flexible workplace readiness assessments or help with flexwork expansion, we find that technical hesitancy gets in the way of teams leveraging collaborative tools. The trouble is teams don’t know what they don’t know. What they are doing today seems to be working, and they don’t have time to go find out what else is possible. Competing demands and workload issues are causing time famine for many teams.

Learn about the tools together as a team. It’s not just one more thing to get done, one more box to check. It unlocks team potential and empowers virtual collaboration. Training everyone to use the technology well is a low-cost, high-return investment.

Lift the veil of virtual distance.

“When leaders learn to lift the veil of virtual distance, people are able to see in others what matters most — what inspires them to act on behalf of others — their mutually shared humanity… Genuine collaboration is achieved through ongoing meaningful exchanges between people who share a passion and respect for one another. Dr. Karen Sobel-Lojeski, expert on bridging virtual distance, called it – teams work best when they co-inspire each other across time and distance. In other words, the more a team knows and cares about each other and the work they are doing together, the more they become a high-performance team.

I was part of a group of like-minded professionals that held an annual conference for 25 years. For several years, I was also conference chair. Collaborative tools weren’t widely available yet, so we formed a Yahoogroup virtual conference planning team. Listservs were new, and we thought we were very cool. We called ourselves the Virtual Hot Tub because the planning team was born in a real hot tub, and because we wanted to be ever mindful that we value fun and hanging out together – whether in person or digitally.

The technology held us together; it removed virtual distance. It helped us bridge operational distance to plan a conference. The virtual hot tub became our planning office, shared document storage and discussion organizer. It became a virtual gathering place for a working team of friends.

Connect the team around what matters.

Genuine collaboration is achieved through ongoing meaningful communication between people that builds and sustains high confidence and trust. That’s easier to do when people

  • Share a goal,
  • Are given enough context to act, and
  • Have respect for one another.

The collaborative team strengthens itself by staying focused collectively, remaining aligned as it works interdependently. Working on a shared goal facilitates faster trust formation.

High-performance virtual teams need one another. They feel connected, supported, and part of something bigger than themselves. Together they deliver more than any could on their own. Everyone expands emotional bandwidth by taking the time to provide context. It replaces visual and physical cues.  Karen Sobel-Lojeski calls this team affinity:  the degree to which team members share cultural values and common communication styles, their attitudes toward work, how dependent they feel on each other for the success of the project, and how much of a working relationship they have.

This is the most important factor in determining virtual distance.

You must first identify what drives your team’s desire and need to connect. Where is your team already aligned? How is your team already connecting to the organization and people outside the team? What tools are they using? How often are they meeting virtually? Face to face?

How can you use technology to better leverage your team? For a quick start or brush up on your virtual competencies, review the previous 4 posts on other lessons learned. Also, be sure to buy Working Virtually: Transforming the Mobile Workplace if you haven’t already!