Virtual teams’ management requires leadership to use people skills and communication technology to build trust, teamwork and relationships.
Leaders want to know the “tricks” to managing virtual teams. We want better tools, systems, and processes that will take groups of people spread around the country, or even the world, and transform them into well-oiled high-performing teams. Here’s the secret: There are no tricks or shortcuts to building a team (virtual or otherwise). Even with the best processes and technology, virtual teams are still made up of people who need to build relationships, create trust, and collaborate to be a successful team. I know the blog title was a little misleading (a clickbait and switch), but now that you’re here, let’s move beyond the illusion of “tricks” to real people-focused ways to address virtual challenges: build relationships, communicate as human beings, and optimize time together.
We may respect titles or acquiesce to hierarchy, but we build a relationship with a person, the whole person. We’re often encouraged to separate our personal life from our work life, which is a lot like asking us to cut off our right arm to fit through the office door (and I don’t type well one-handed). When we bring our whole self and connect with someone else as a whole person, we find more in common, build better connections, and increase trust. As virtual teams, we don’t bump into each other in the halls, or at the coffeemaker, to help us build these connections more casually. Our interactions are more limited and more formal, occurring mostly during meetings and…well…more meetings.
In a virtual team, we have to create opportunities to make more informal connections. It sounds ridiculous to work that hard to create “natural” interactions, but when we don’t plan and protect this time, our attention will be hijacked by some fire-of-the-moment, and what’s “urgent” will consume what’s “important.” So, how do we purposefully create opportunities for connection?
Use Existing Meetings
Carve out time at the beginning of team meetings to connect as human beings: share what we did over the weekend, discuss a favorite hobby, or talk about anything other than work. We can also use virtual meeting tools to create smaller breakout groups for more intimate interactions, and then come back together to share important points or a new tidbit we learned about a teammate.
Create Virtual Cafes
Meet 1:1 or in small groups for an online coffee break or happy hour. –Even if we work in different time zones, it’s 5 o’clock somewhere.
We need to build in those human moments to stay connected even when we’re thousands of miles apart.
Communicate as Human Beings
Continuous communication over technology does not mean communication is clear or effective. It just provides a digital trail to prove messages were sent. I won’t call out specific tools because I might get sued, but you know the ones. The tools that allow us to constantly ping each other with emails, instant messages (IM), texts, etc. What we often forget is that even when we use these tools, we still need to communicate with the brains of human beings. Ongoing distractions interrupt our concentration, limit our focus, and reduce productivity. We need to use the right tools in the right way:
Email is best used to confirm information (that has already been discussed), and share information that is clear, concise, and not inflammatory. To make emails more effective try some of the following: Use the subject line as part of the message– “FYI,” “Response Requested,” “Action Required” or even “Action Required. Otherwise, will send X by Y date.” (That last one usually gets a response. Whether or not it’s a “good” response, depends on your audience). Call attention to due dates in emails by putting them in red. Keep emails short and summarize key points. Short emails take more time to write, but long emails take more time to read. So, if we want emails read, we should keep them short.
The above examples are focused more on US corporate cultures. We may need to adjust our approach to the team, company, or country cultures in which we operate. Regardless of the approach, our goal is to be effective.
IM is good for a quick back and forth chat or to align schedules for a meeting. When either email or IM goes on too long, stop the thread. Summarize the text and identify next steps, or jump on a video conference to discuss.
Video is better than both email and IM when we want to communicate more complex ideas. Only about 25% of communication is made up of the words we use. The rest is tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. That means text-based tools leave out 75% of our communication. So, we shouldn’t be surprised when our meaning isn’t always clear.
Technology tools are not just about sending information, but managing how and when we receive it. To improve our focus, we can block time on the calendar to turn off our email, IM, and phone. The book “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” by Cal Newport offers great insights and tips to help us improve our concentration and get work done. If you are really struggling to focus, then stop reading this post, and go read Cal Newport’s book instead.
We can’t let technology dictate how we communicate. We need to use the tools in ways that will improve our communication. When we assume communication has been read and understood just because we click “Send,” that’s when things fall through the cracks (and often fall apart).
Optimize Time Together
The goal is to meet in person as often as schedules, pandemics, and fuel prices allow. Once face-to-face, we don’t want to squander our time, squeezing too much content into back-to-back meetings or doing work we could have done remotely. We want to use this precious in-person time to connect with each other and build stronger relationships. Of course, work has to get done, but spending time on people is also essential. When we know and trust each other, communication is easier, collaboration is more effective, and our work will be more productive long after the in-person meeting is over.
No Shortcuts to Building Teams
There are no magic “tricks” to leading virtual teams. Virtual or not, we work with people, and that requires focus, communication, and intentionally building relationships. When we align our approach with how people “work” (inside and out), our communication and collaboration will be more successful. No tricks required.