In this series of Blogs, we will discuss Virtual Team Strategies designed to ensure that the Virtual Team thrives and is successful so that assigned goals and tasks can be achieved.

Getting Virtual Teams Together – In Person

With all the talk on leading a Virtual Team, there are several times in the life of a Virtual Team that a leader should physically bring the team together.  Organizations must be aware of this need and incorporate this into their planning and budgeting for the team.  If this does not occur, over time, the team will suffer and become increasingly ineffective.

Team Formation

Once the team composition is decided upon, allowing members to meet face to face prior to “going virtual” will go a long way towards establishing personal connections and development of the initial trust needed for VT’s to thrive. As the leader, you’ll be able to observe and evaluate the dynamics of the team, including eye contact and body language that will be missing as the team begins its Virtual phase. This is also the best time to establish the goals and guidelines that the team will follow in the future.

New Members

As each virtual team grows and evolves there is a tendency to not provide new team members with the same introductory meeting that the rest of the team was provided during team formation.  It is important to ensure that new members are introduced, in person, to as many people within the overall organization and virtual team as possible. If this is not possible then urge them to meet with team members and others via video.  Ideally, leaders should pair new team members with an in-team mentor they can reach out to as they acclimate to the team.  This is designed to mimic the in-office co-workers that help collocated employees “settle in.”

Milestones, Achievements, and Tune-ups

One of the most difficult jobs of a Virtual Team leader is to inspire members to deliver their best, but e-mail updates and weekly conference calls can only go so far. In the absence of visual cues and body language, misunderstandings often arise, and the larger the team the more likely it is that this will happen. As mentioned above, team members begin to feel disconnected and less engaged, and their contributions to the project decline. So, at times it is necessary to get people together to celebrate team milestones, the achievement of short-term goals or the successful completion of projects. Additionally, if the team has been unable to get together in person in quite some time, eventually the team will need an “in-person” tune-up meeting.  Taking the time to restate objectives and goals and “relaunching” other aspects of the team to meet business objectives is a good reason to get together, BUT, just as important as the business reason for assembling, the social side of getting together MUST be emphasized.  Establishing times for team members to socialize with each other in non-work-related activities is crucial to re-establishing connections, trust, and understanding of each other.  Participatory celebrations are especially valued by team members who are isolated from other members or when the only recognition for their team contribution comes from a remotely located manager. “Reward the group and the group will reward you”

Using Technology

Leveraging developments in collaborative technologies is undeniably making virtual teaming easier. However, selecting the “best” technologies to use within your team does not automatically mean investing in the newest or most feature-laden programs available on the market.   It’s essential not to sacrifice usability and reliability simply to be on the cutting edge…the cutting edge is great, but only if it works and works for everyone.  If team members struggle to get connected or waste time making some components of the collaboration program work, it undermines the meeting and kills communication and productivity. Be willing to sacrifice some features, if necessary, in order to have everyone on systems that work for all. Just as important as having the “right” technology is the need to ensure that all members have adequate internet capabilities.  Depending on where team members are located this may mean spending additional capital on atypical solutions; otherwise, you risk creating second-class team members which undermines the effectiveness of the individual and the team.

Final Thoughts

Finally, accept that as the leader, you must do more work ‘behind the scenes’ in order to; understand your team members and their motivations, ensure that they remain engaged in the projects, build trust and relationships, minimize isolation and make them feel like they are part of the overall organization and ensure that they are actively participating within the virtual team.   If possible, get the team together face-to-face early on if you are a new leader or the team is newly formed and try to connect semi-annually and annually in business and social situations. There is also the added work “behind the scenes” in ensuring that the mechanics and technologies used when operating in a virtual environment, from technology to time zones are accommodated and maintained.  Of course, after that, there remains all the “normal” activities required of managers and leaders that head up teams within an organization.  We’ll cover those things next…

 The above is one of a series of articles discussing the creation, development, and care of effective dispersed or virtual teams.  David spent 18 years working in these types of teams, from individual contributor to Director of a team of field based engineers and support staff.  These articles are based upon his successful experiences both leading and participating in virtual teams.