For years I’ve been warning people that, in spite of the advent of so much technology that allows co-workers to communicate with one another remotely, building and leading virtual teams remains a serious challenge. But after having been involved in a virtual team myself for the past three years, I now realize I was wrong; it’s even harder than I had thought.
A few years ago, I helped start a faith-based organization with some beloved colleagues out of state. When I say beloved, I mean it. These are some of the most virtuous, kind and gracious human beings I’ve ever known. And I’ve come to know them well, getting together in person with them, and often with their families, once a quarter over the past few years. So I was more than a little surprised when things got difficult.
In the midst of some pressure that was caused by the growth of our programs, small cracks in our unified effort began to show themselves. Normal stuff, like different interpretations of agreements we thought we had made, incorrect assumptions about our plans for the near-term and distant future, dropped balls. As these situations increased, we began to question one another’s capabilities, and intentions.
When we finally got together and put the issues on the table, we realized that everything was attributable to not having regular, daily, face-to-face interactions. So we decided that we would work harder to use technology to stay in closer contact, and that we wouldn’t jump to any conclusions about one another if we ever found ourselves at cross-purposes. And then it happened again.
Frankly, I was shocked. First, this was a small organization with just two locations and an idealistic mission. Second, the people on the team were genuinely humble, kind and well-intentioned. Finally, I am a leader of this organization, and I’m supposed to be an expert, of sorts, on teamwork and communication. If we were experiencing that kind of pain in our relatively simple situation, what must it be like to work in a larger organization with multiple offices spread around the country or the world?
All of this has led me to a few conclusions.
1. When given a choice, avoid virtual teams. That’s right. If there is a reasonable way to organize your work to get team members in the same location, do it.
2. If you are part of a non-virtual team, take full advantage of it. Being co-located is a serious competitive advantage, one that many organizations fail to leverage by working in silos and having bad meetings. I’m convinced that if people in those organizations could spend a few weeks on a virtual team, they would go back with a renewed appreciation for being co-located, and they would better appreciate and take advantage of that opportunity.
3. If you cannot avoid working on a virtual team—and plenty of organizations can’t—then sit down as a team and acknowledge the inevitability of miscommunication, unintentional politics, and painfully inaccurate behavioral attributions. Be diligent, even a little paranoid, about small misunderstandings, and don’t let them get out of hand.
To make all of this possible, virtual teams need to commit to spending face-to-face time together, as much and as often as possible, and to using that time wisely. That means working hard to build vulnerability-based trust with one another, and learning how to engage in passionate conflict and debate around decision-making. Remember, it’s hard enough for people who work in the same office every day and who look each other in the face during meetings to do this well. People who don’t have that luxury are going to have to be much more intentional about getting to know one another and practicing healthy conflict.
In addition, virtual teams must (get ready for the most disappointing recommendation of all) learn how to have disciplined conference calls. That’s right. The only way for remote team members to come close to replicating the effectiveness of a good in-person meeting is to promise one another that they will not check e-mail, play spider solitaire, or mute the phone and have side conversations with co-workers during meetings. Instead, they must be present, attentive and willing to engage in difficult discussions even when it is tempting to let a comment or an issue go just so the meeting can end sooner. And when someone suspects that a team member might not be adhering to all this, everyone must be willing to ask the question and call that person out.
Of course, leaders of virtual teams will be critical to making this work. They must carve out extra time during conference calls so that real discourse can occur. And they have to actively solicit the opinions of people who aren’t speaking up, either because they have a hard time jumping into a conversation, or because they are generally quiet and reserved. And finally, the leader must call out any team members that he or she suspects of multi-tasking or checking out of the meeting.
The truth is, virtual teams can work. But they often don’t. That’s not because the people on the team have bad intentions or are taking advantage of fact that they aren’t together. It’s almost always because they underestimate and fail to take seriously the challenge they face.
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