As we explored last week, a virtual team consists of professionals working remotely in various locations. Some members may work out of their home, some may work in co-working offices, while others might work in branch offices.  All, however, work on the same team and work toward the same objectives.

This week, I’ve asked Susan Krautbauer to collaborate with me in this conversation thread.  Susan brings over 20 years’ of expertise in the high tech service industry, serving in a variety of roles with both SMB and global organizations.  In addition, Susan has been working virtually as a successful member of virtual teams for over 5 years.

According to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), building team relations tops the list of challenges faced by a virtual team.  With a distributed workforce, how can an individuals feel connected to one another, to their manager and ultimately feel they are a vital part of their company or team? How can an organization effectively build cohesive team relations?

Top Challenges of Virtual Teams

Foundational to this challenge is that the entire organization, from the CEO to the shipping clerk, must be intentional about fostering this connectivity through effective policy, collaboration tools and development strategies.  While every single person in a virtual organization has a responsibility to foster organizational connectedness, typically the heaviest load lies within the team leadership.

The biggest challenge as a virtual team leader is to earn the respect and trust of each and every virtual team member, without them having met you physically, in order to build team cohesiveness.  So how do you earn that respect and trust, without the traditional interactions? What can you do that can improve your “presence” with them, and make them feel your engagement in their everyday work, and as you deliver the goals of your team / organization collectively?

1. Communicate, communicate, communicate. “Communication is both the biggest obstacle and the solution to developing trust within remote teams,” says Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of FlexJobs. “Don’t try to use only one tool to connect to your colleagues. Email, chat, phone, web, and video conferencing each have their own place. Pick a communication tool that will make sure the type of message you need to convey is heard and understood.”

kathy_kacher_picKathy – I’d like to share a real life example of communication break-down with you. In the past I would hold employee benefit fairs for a dependent care needs program my company offered which supported employees needing these services. I would spend hours at my booth explaining to people about my program, which had been previously communicated over and over again across the organization through a variety of methods, including email, newsletters, etc. Unfortunately, most people that stopped to chat with me had NO IDEA this benefit was available to them. So, as you can see from this illustration, there really is no such thing as over communicating, especially when it comes to big changes.   People absorb information in different ways, so be creative and aggressive when it comes to connecting and communicating with your team, use all of the multiple communication channels available to your organization.

2. Hanging out at the Water Cooler. In a traditional brick-and-mortar work environment, employees build rapport with one another through a wide variety of face to face informal communication and connection.  These ‘water-cooler’ conversations are usually focused around your team’s weekends, hobbies, families and other personal activities. Contrary to popular belief, this is not wasted time.   Water cooler connections result in a stronger team bond and ultimately leads to a higher functioning, supportive team environment.

While collaborative technologies are fine for exchanging formal knowledge, they don’t really work well to help you get to know colleagues on a personal level.  Enter social media technologies.  Many organizations are starting to explore open and closed social media platforms to connect their employees to each other – some examples of social media are intranet forums, weblogs, blogs, podcasts, pictures, video, rating and social bookmarking, profiles and wall-postings, email, instant messaging and idea- sourcing, to name a few.

Susan Krautbauer - headshot Version 3 webSusan – Many people mistakenly  believe that learning to manage a virtual team is all about learning how to use the technology.   But in reality, effectively managing virtual teams require understanding the people and the collaboration process.   Even if you don’t have a rich portfolio of social media platforms available to facilitate team bonding, leaders can utilize existing video conferencing for team meetings and intentionally carve out time in each call for individuals to share their vacation stories, or what they did last weekend, even perhaps photographs with their other teammates. By providing your team with real-time video of your team’s faces, along with strategies to connect on a personal level, will help foster personal bonding within your virtual team and ultimately contribute to a better overall team member engagement and collaboration. 

Here are just a few strategies to keep in mind as you lead, or collaborate as part of, a virtual team:

  • Role model and encourage the behaviors you expect – the team will do what they see and what they are held accountable for.
  • Don’t be the meeting leader and the meeting facilitator at the same time.
  • Devote your full attention to the topic and participants during your meetings (this is not the time for multi-tasking).
  • Be sensitive to culture, language, time zone, shyness and other barriers that may prevent full participation. Use roundtable techniques to allow all participants to speak.
  • Share impressions and strategies during and after the meeting.
  • Devote meetings exclusively to shared mind-work; do all other work between meetings using collaborative/shared platforms.
  • Know how to facilitate online discussions, including summarization and clear delegation strategies.
  • Address conflicting loyalties between the team and other groups.
  • Encourage frequent communication among team members between meetings.

Let the team at The Smart Workplace know if you have a good problem you’d like us to take a look at while you’re becoming  a more agile, mobile, digital, collaborative organization, team or career professional. We look forward to getting to know you and helping you solve those good problems that come along with growing pains.   If you’re not a SMART Workplace community member yet, join us now and be part of our emerging conversation on best practices and strategies leaders can employ to develop sustainable, SMART workplaces.

~ Kathy Kacher, Workforce Solutions Expert and co-founder of The SMART Workplace