When the challenges of team building for virtual teams come up for discussion with workshop groups, my usual mantra is that we don’t do anything different when managing remotely; we just have to do more of the same stuff. Take all the communicating and aligning and getting to know each other that needs to happen in order for co-located teams to trust each other and work collaboratively and then multiply it by ten for a virtual team.
You’re probably thinking, but it’s not all the same because you have to use technology more, and differently. And that’s true. We have to get savvier with tools like video teleconference, instant messaging, webinar, etc. But lately I’ve been thinking about how we need to reframe the way we look at these tools. Some of my colleagues have been talking about the advantages of some of these technologies for more introverted personalities, which is a timely topic these days with all the chatter about Susan Cain’s popular book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. In an in-person meeting that has a lot of outgoing, vocal personalities, the discussion is likely to be dominated by those people and the quieter folks are likely to sit on the sidelines because it’s too difficult to get a word in. They may have great ideas, but verbalizing them would involve interrupting someone and that feels rude or uncomfortable. In an electronic meeting using a tool like webinar, however, those same quiet folks can use the chat function to send a message to the group or to the facilitator. So rather than seeing an electronic meeting as an inferior substitute for an in-person meeting or training session, we should reframe it as a tool that allows for fuller and more equal participation.
We know from an MIT Human Dynamics Laboratory study published in 2012 that the full and equal participation of all team members in team communication matters. A lot. The study correlated the distribution of communication patterns, which were measured over a period of time with little electronic badges, with performance metrics and found a positive correlation in every case. Teams in which everyone talks to everyone perform better. Teams in which a few people dominate the conversation perform worse.
Instant messaging is a tool that can work the same way. Say you have a quick question for your colleague. If you’re co-located, your likely options are to pick up the phone, send an email, or stop by the person’s desk. An introvert is less likely to stop by the person’s desk or call and more likely to send an email, which as we all know means the question gets buried under a mountain of email and takes longer to be answered. If your team is virtual and you’ve taken steps to promote the appropriate use of an instant message function, communication for the introverts will happen faster and more efficiently, without taxing the comfort level of the introvert. (That’s not to say that you can’t institute the use of IM with your co-located team also, but currently it’s not the paradigm in most organizations.)
The bottom line is that if we really focus on leveraging the tools, it’s possible we can create higher performance on a virtual team than on a co-located one. That’s good news for folks who sometimes wish they weren’t on a team at all.