When I speak to audiences about teamwork, one of the most frequently asked questions I get has to do with managing groups of people who are geographically dispersed, a.k.a. virtual teams. This surprises me a little because the topic, as well as the solution for addressing it, is certainly not very sexy. But with so many teams these days comprised of members living in different time zones and countries and continents, and with travel budgets likely to shrink for the foreseeable future, there probably has never been a greater need for people who don’t see each other very often to figure out how to work better together. The key is simply about avoiding three mistakes.
The first mistake that virtual teams make is underestimating the challenges of being dispersed. Because e-mail and voicemail and texting and instant messaging have become so second nature, we too often assume that a team member’s physical location makes little difference in the effectiveness of the team. This, of course, makes no sense.
After all, no family would say “well, dad lives in New York, mom lives in San Francisco and the kids are spread around the country, but thanks to my iPhone and computer, it’s no different than living under the same roof.” The simple but often overlooked truth is that without the daily interaction of breakfast or dinner or homework or late night conversations or doing the dishes, a family can’t possibly develop and maintain the strength that it needs to thrive during good times and survive during challenging ones. The same is true for teams who have no incidental conversations in the hallway or at lunch, or in the elevator, for that matter.
Once a team understands the disadvantage of not being co-located, then it will be more likely to take on the next mistake that virtual teams make: wasting the precious time that they do spend together.
Too many virtual teams utilize their quarterly or monthly in-person sessions engaging in social activities, somehow believing that this is how the team will bond. While social time is okay, if there is not a focused and organized attempt to build relationships in the context of the work that needs to be done, then the team will only improve its collective golf scores, or worse yet, its tolerance for alcohol. On the other side of the equation, too many teams go the other way, spending their sparse time together doing detailed operations reviews and addressing overly tactical matters, which is almost as unproductive as golfing. The perfect storm occurs when teams split their time between irrelevant socializing and mind-numbing detail, resulting almost inevitably in everyone coming to dread another useless trip to corporate.
What team members really need to do when they are face-to-face is develop their relationships by getting to know one another’s strengths and weaknesses, not in a touchy-feely way, but in the context of the goals of the business. And they need to establish clear alignment around the bigger picture issues like the team’s core purpose, values, strategic anchors and top priorities. Wasting time in the weeds wrestling with detailed ops issues is fruitless and frustrating when teams are not on the same page relating to these bigger issues. Strong relationships are critical to getting on the same page because it allows the team to debate issues passionately and productively, which increases the likelihood that everyone will buy-in.
Buy-in is especially important for virtual team members because when they get back to their offices, they will need to work with a high degree of confidence that their peers will do what they agreed to do for the good of the team. That is hard enough when those peers sit in the cube or office across the hall and have plenty of in-person meetings on a regular basis. When they’re in different cities, it is much more difficult, which brings us to mistake number three.
The last mistake that virtual teams make is failing to master an event that is one of the most loathed and underestimated of all corporate activities: the dreaded conference call. Yes, even in this age of improved video-conferencing, there is simply no good, reliable and affordable everyday substitute for the speaker phone when it comes to working with remote colleagues. Unfortunately, just as we’ve done with regular meetings, we’ve come to believe that conference calls are inherently boring and unchangeable, a sort of corporate penance. So we accept agenda items that are neither compelling or critical, and we make an unspoken deal with each other: “as long as you let me check my e-mail and balance my check-book and play spider solitaire and do busy work—all with the mute button on—I’ll keep coming to these meetings and offering my perfunctory input to let everyone know I’m still awake.”
What teams have to do—and I told you up front that this is simple and unsexy—is make a serious commitment to one another that they will maintain a high standard of behavior during conference calls, even higher than they would for an in-person meeting. That will mean eliminating outside interruptions, avoiding distractions, foregoing the use of the mute button, and indicating agreement or disagreement verbally to avoid passive approvals born out of misinterpreted silence.
Of course, all of this starts with the building of strong relationships, and the only way our teams are going to be willing to dedicate the time and energy to do that is if we understand the disadvantage of being virtual. If we can’t do that, we should probably just get used to more golf, more spider solitaire, and more time, energy and money wasted during trips to corporate.