Virtual teams and telecommuting are now accepted features of corporate life and continue to be on the rise. The benefits are many: flexible working, cost reduction, increased employee motivation, productivity gains, reduced stress and sickness levels. Aided by technology you can connect with team members almost anytime, anywhere. You can join a meeting from your small businesses premises as easily as you can conduct an appraisal conversation from your kitchen table.
So, if you want to ensure you get the most from your virtual interactions, what do you need to do? Here are ten tips given by Ally Yates, author of ‘Utter Confidence: How what you say and do influences your effectiveness in business’, to help you improve your performance:
Create a shared direction
A common sense of purpose and agreed outcomes are particularly important for a remote team where it’s all too easy for people to go off-track. It is helpful to define both what the direction is and what this means for each person involved in terms of tasks and deliverables. Use these as the basis for measuring your progress.
Build trust and familiarity
This is much harder to achieve when you are in one location, while your colleagues are scattered across five other countries. High performing teams treat trust-building as a priority, and with good reason. As human beings, we are pack animals with an innate need to belong. To help you and your colleagues feel you are of the same tribe, or at least share some common ground, you can create some social time in your meetings, inviting people to share something of their personal and professional self. And, believe it or not, it’s the personal details that resonate most.
Contract clear rules for working together
Clear rules help you get the work done more efficiently and effectively. At the outset, it’s useful to explore and agree how often you’ll connect, and for how long. Also, what happens in the space between diarised interactions? Establishing this clarity provides a drumbeat for your interactions which is overlaid by the percussion of appropriate ground rules: for example, everyone will arrive online on time; don’t interrupt the speaker. These are particularly helpful where people have different cultural expectations about what is acceptable.
As new members join the team it is worth re-visiting and re-evaluating the group norms. Are they effective? What more do you need to do to improve your ways of working?
Share the airtime
Research by Jarvenpaa and Leidner on trust in global virtual teams found that high trust teams had “predictable communication patterns”, where the team members’ contribution levels were evenly spread. In managing the distribution of airtime, each team member has a responsibility to keep track of who is in (or out of) the conversation and to rectify the balance. Monitor the level of your own contributions compared with others. Are you taking too much of the airtime?
Meetings benefit from team members agreeing roles such as Chair, Timekeeper, Minute taker. A dispersed team can benefit from a Scribe who is adept at using technology so that discussion points are captured for all to see and a Knowledge Manager who acts as the team curator, ensuring all the good work is recorded, not lost. This can also be a useful reminder for everyone as to what needs to be done, by who and by when.
Share the lead
The more successful teams share leadership across team members, depending on where the relevant knowledge lay. This makes sense. In a well-managed project, each activity stream has a ‘single point of accountability’ (SPOA), an individual who is responsible for that strand of work. Allowing each SPOA to lead on his/her stream nurtures that accountability and often provides a development opportunity for a team member. If you’re a team leader, it’s important to remember you don’t have to hold all the cards in your hand: you can practice your skills of delegation and provide development opportunities for others.
In almost any team you’re likely to have cultural, professional and personal diversity. High performing teams know the make-up of their diversity and work hard to leverage the value from the differing perspectives. And where diversity doesn’t exist (or more likely is less pronounced), they will create it.
Margerison and McCann’s work has found that high performing teams cover eight different team roles that each comprise a combination of types of work (e.g. upholding standards or creating ideas) and personal preferences (e.g. working with details, or requiring constant stimulus to keep boredom at bay). Covering all eight roles often requires members of the team to work outside their preferences. Working contrary to type means learning new behaviours and building different behavioural muscle, depending on the role you are fulfilling. Making the most of the diversity around you relies on your curiosity and willingness to explore rather than judge. As Ed Hess writes: “Ask to learn, not to confirm.”
Facilitate round-the-clock working
Many global virtual teams, particularly in the technology sector, relay work around the globe from one time zone to another. Master your baton passing by providing a clear explanation of progress to date, suggesting or asking what needs to happen next, inviting and giving reactions, and recognising what has been achieved.
Team leaders facilitate in the meeting and guide outside the meeting
As a leader, if you’re acting on the previous nine considerations, you’ll find yourself comfortably in the zone of effectively managing the process, as your team take care of the task. The larger your team, the more susceptible you are to fragmented, unclear communications. This inevitably has an impact on levels of engagement and the priority team members give to the work.
In between the drumbeat of virtual meetings, like the conductor of an orchestra, you can work with each team member to question, refine and develop their work. Wherever possible you can lead with questions, helping them to draw on their resources, extend their networks and learn from what has been achieved (or not).
Using your time well between meetings helps team members continue to generate and evaluate ideas, respond to each other and plan for the next session so that everyone is prepared, no one feels under pressure and everyone can make a contribution.
Value people’s contributions
While all of us crave a sense of belonging, we also want to be appreciated and enjoy that dopamine hit. Regardless of whether you’re a team leader or a team member, you can notice what people have achieved, the effort they’ve made and the way in which they are contributing to the discussion. Showing your appreciation helps to accelerate the level of trust in remote teams, which is critical to successful working.