Does your organization include employees in many states – or even countries? If so, you need to think outside all the boxes to create a true feeling of virtual team. Here’s how:
The virtual breakroom
Within a traditional workplace, co-workers swap stories, talk about their family and share vacation photos. With virtual teams, employers need to provide a way for team members to build the sense of community and friendship that helps them interact as a team.
Blog posts and team wikis allow for continuous dialogue and sharing of departmental news. A public dashboard allows employees to constantly share progress and issues, with status updates becoming the virtual small talk. Because email can’t replace in-person meetings, arrange video interactions through Skype or cloud video conferencing to give the sense of a real human face.
When creating virtual teams, set all members up for success with the tools they need to come to the remote table, such as personal digital devices, high-speed Internet connections and laptop computers with virtual private network connectivity. Collaboration tools such as Microsoft SharePoint let employees see others’ desktops, stay current on workflow tasks and even jointly edit documents. Cloud-based options offer lower overhead, increased flexibility and reduced IT support.
Effective virtual teamwork starts with wise hiring. Because you can’t guide and monitor out-of-sight employees as easily as those located near your office, seek out individuals who demonstrate self-reliance, initiative and solid work ethic. As virtual teaming requires interdependence, look for collaborative employees who instinctively reach out to others with ideas and questions.
Even the best employees can wither in remote situations unless their managers commit to regular contact. It takes extra managerial effort to reach out and engage employees when you don’t run into them in the hall or by the coffee machine. Manager feedback, early and often, along with overt communication from colleagues, helps virtual workers feel connected.
Managers additionally foster a team mentality by establishing team operating procedures, setting goals that require team interaction and giving team members multiple opportunities to see how their virtual peers can help them. We’ve had great success with the team “talent search” in which team members exchange bulleted information on “what they bring to the table,” followed by group discussion concerning what each team member needs from the manager and peers in communication, interaction and resources. We codify this in team “operating agreements.”
Continuing to grease the virtual team forward
Effective team managers focus on community before activity, and begin virtual team exchanges with informal conversations that help team members feel they have a social connection. The company’s Intranet can also facilitate this bonding by providing a platform for team members to share personal experiences along with family news or photos. Additionally, team managers can both recognize individual achievement and foster inspiration by circulating outstanding team member work products to others on the team.
Finally, as misunderstandings can easily grow from cryptic or abrupt emails, team managers need to keep their eye on team member exchanges and intervene swiftly when they sense low-level problems that could fester into larger barriers.
Lynne Curry, Ph.D., SPHR and owner of the Alaska-based management consulting firm, The Growth Company Inc. consults with companies, individuals and Boards of Directors to create real solutions to real workplace challenges.