I get a lot of requests for virtual team building classes to teach managers how to effectively manage a team that is not co-located.  At first I thought I’d be writing a whole new class.  But then I realized it’s all the same stuff; you just have to do a lot more of it. Virtual teams require the same building blocks as non-virtual teams: management by results, continuous communication, management visibility and increased responsiveness.  But the importance of each of those building blocks increases  exponentially.  Think about how an unanswered email from your colleague down the hall feels.  Now compare that to an unanswered email from a colleague in another time zone that you’ve never met.  It can be the difference between assuming the colleague is really busy and stopping by her desk instead, or playing guessing games about why the email is unanswered, possibly ending with a story about an untrustworthy, lazy or uncaring teammate.

Building trust is perhaps the hardest and most critical task of a virtual team.  A recent Harvard Business blog article by Keith Ferrazzi makes some useful points on the subject:

  • Leverage “swift trust”: This is the trust that consists in people who just met giving each other the benefit of the doubt.  It’s the “artificial politeness” I so often talk about with teams in the forming stage.  Managers who take full advantage of this grace period and spend it building goal alignment and a recognition of team member’s strengths and talents will help the team get to the point of building real and lasting trust.
  • Proactively build interpersonal trust: This is about giving team members time to get to know each other on a personal level and build empathy.  Give team members a few minutes at the beginning of a conference call to talk about what’s going on in their lives, and encourage them to reach out to each other individually as well.  Should you ever have the opportunity of an in-person meeting, make sure to devote a good chunk of it to “getting to know you” activities.  So many managers have become dismissive of these kinds of activities as “fluff” that we don’t have time for, but its importance cannot be overstated.  Team members who don’t trust each other don’t share information or work well together, and that means they don’t produce.  Instead they spend time trying to second guess or sabotage each other.
  • Communicate predictably: This doesn’t refer only to communications from the manager to the team members, but also to the regularity and frequency of communication between team members.

This last point is particularly important in light of Sandy Pentland’s research on the communication patterns of highly effective teams from the MIT Human Dynamics Laboratory.  The researchers attached small sensor badgers to team members which measured their patterns of communication, and one of fascinating things they found is that team members contributed more equally on high performance teams, instead of some team members communicating more and others keeping to themselves.  I’ve written about the implications of this research before.  A manager of a virtual team needs to leverage technology to create as many forums for team communication as possible, and then encourage team members to use them by setting the example.

It’s not rocket science.  But it does take a high level of commitment and focus from the team’s leader, who must never let distance become an excuse for neglecting the basics of good team building.

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