Managing virtual teams is an increasingly hot topic for supervisors, as telecommuting and flex time programs become more widespread and globalization increases.  Tsedal Neeley recently published a great article on overcoming the challenges of virtual teams called Global Teams that Work.  Although his focus is on international teams, most of his key points can be applied to any team that is not consistently co-located.

Neeley begins by simplifying the primary challenge of a virtual team in just two words: social distance, which he defines as a mechanism for measuring the level of emotional connection between team members.  Teams with low social distance easily develop trust and alignment, and thus work more effectively as a team, whereas teams with high social distance may struggle to interact effectively.  Neeley gives us a simple framework for identifying and mitigating social distance, which he calls the SPLIT framework, an acronym standing for five components: structure, process, language, identity, and technology.

  1. Structure is about perceptions of power leading to “in groups” and “out groups.”  Neeley uses the example of an organization which has the majority of employees in one country and just a few in another; it will be perceived that the employees in the majority office have more power.  I see this most frequently in the “us vs. them” mentality between corporate offices/headquarters and field offices, both in public and private organizations.  Not only are there perceptions of a power imbalance, but there is also a feeling on both sides that the other group does not understand the work load and challenges of the other.  Neeley says managers must focus on reconnecting employees with three key messages: who we are, what we do, and and the fact that the boss is there to support them, not just for one group but for all.  Spending time to reinforce the mission on a consistent basis is critical.
  2. Process refers to the importance of building opportunities to develop empathy into the team’s process for meeting virtually.  This is the equivalent of a co-located team’s “water cooler” discussions.  Managers should begin meetings with five minutes of unstructured time for team members to chat and get to know each other, and should encourage honest communication and respectful disagreement.   It is also important to set norms for responsiveness and encourage honest feedback on what’s working and what’s not.  An unanswered email from a colleague down the hall is usually not a big deal, because we’ll walk down the hall to check in with that colleague.  But an unanswered email from a colleague far away may spiral into a “ladder of inference” story about unreliability and mistrust.
  3. Language refers to the fluency gap when you have members who speak English as a second language.  It’s important that those who speak fluent English refrain from speaking too quickly, using acronyms and slang, and dominating the conversation.  This is also an important point with regard to introverts and extroverts.  Those accustomed to and more comfortable with speaking frequently in meetings must leave space for others, and even actively encourage others to join the discussion by using questions in a skillful way.
  4. Identity is about understanding the cultural and regional norms that may be misinterpreted and cause miscommunication and mistrust.  All team members must become both teachers and learners, willing to ask and answer questions about their own communication norms and conflict approaches.
  5. Technology, finally, is a component we must learn to make good choices about.  What technology provides the best opportunity for decreasing social distance during a particular meeting?  Usually it will be the one that allows for as much non-verbal communication as possible, e.g. video teleconference, but in cases where highly emotional conflict is possible, it might mean the opposite.  We must also be willing to be uncomfortable in the use of technology in order to become fluent with it.  Managers should model this behavior if they expect employees to follow.

Neeley nicely summarizes the five components and the connections between them when he says, “Decisions about structure create opportunities for good process, which can mitigate difficulties caused by language differences and identity issues. If leaders act on these fronts, while marshaling technology to improve communication among geographically dispersed colleagues, social distance is sure to shrink, not expand.”