Three countermeasures to major virtual team challenges

| By TMA World


In the book “Where in the World is My Team?” I identified three major challenges for virtual teams, and also three countermeasures to them:

IsolationDeveloping Engagement
Fragmentation – Developing Cohesion
ConfusionDeveloping Clarity

Working over distances, team members can too easily develop a feeling of being isolated and ‘out of the loop’.  They can become highly passive and withdraw their best efforts from the team, or even become resentful and destructive.  Every member of a virtual team must feel a sense of belonging that fuels commitment, motivation, and loyalty.  Leaders must communicate to engage and not just exchange.

Working over distances, team members can lose sight of a shared purpose, priorities, and strategy; the energies and efforts of the team can become scattered and unfocused.  Local – rather than team priorities – come to dominate individual task lists, and team collaboration suffers.  Leaders must communicate to establish and reinforce the why, what, when, and how the team will collaborate.  Explicit communication for cohesion must be given priority over chance.  No one should have to second-guess a leader or another team member.

Working over distances also means team members are working across borders; organizational, geographic, and cultural.  People working across borders speak and write in different languages, and I’m not just talking about English, Mandarin, Arabic, etc.  Organizations have their own versions of ‘corporate speak’ and shorthand, e.g. jargon and acronyms.  Functions within a business like Marketing, R&D, Manufacturing, and Sales also speak/write in different languages.  Also, confusion can be caused by inattention to the basics, e.g. word choice and grammar.

Communication is the key to overcoming each of the three challenges.  Here are some specific leader countermeasures for each one.    

Developing Engagement
• Value social communication as well as task communication.  Typically start with social communication (particularly at the beginning of becoming a team), and then move onto task.  Share pictures and bios.
• Encourage spontaneous communication and social networking among team members.  The leader shouldn’t become a bottleneck in the information flow.
• Have a virtual open-door.  That doesn’t mean being online 24/7, but it does mean acknowledging the message in a reasonable timeframe agreed to by the team.  Virtual silence is more unsettling than silence in a face-to-to-face situation (where body language provides clues to meaning).
• Communicate one-on-one with team members, not just leader-to-the-whole-team.  One-on-one communication supports the human touch in a digital environment.
• Facilitate communication, commitment, and ownership on large teams by creating smaller task teams, although be alert for the formation of divisive cliques.
• Develop a regular team communication rhythm so that members know when they will be able to connect with the whole team.  Create a communications plan.
• Use inclusive rather than exclusive language – ‘we’ rather than ‘I’.  Encourage cross-cultural dialogue and learning.
• Develop turn-taking norms so everyone’s views are heard in meetings.

Developing Cohesion
• Uncover and manage differences in technology/software.
• Make clear what work can be done autonomously and what needs collaboration.  Don’t try to enforce collaboration where it is unnecessary.
• Reinforce team purpose, goals, and priorities regularly.  It’s easy to lose focus in virtual space where there are many distractions.
• Work together on shared values and norms (team culture) to guide team interactions, e.g. communication, decision making, information sharing, managing disagreements.
• Identify critical processes and systems that need to be consistent across the team to enable smooth collaboration and reporting.
• Use technology to create a shared ‘team space’ for posting messages, enabling threaded discussions, sharing documents, and building a team memory.
• Create opportunities for sharing of best practices from the different locations.
• Challenge any indications of the ‘not invented here’ syndrome.

Developing Clarity
• Work hard to make sure there is a shared understanding of team purpose, goals, priorities and standards on the team.  Put things in writing.
• Be as precise as possible about team roles and responsibilities, strategies, decision making processes, and decision rights.  Map linkages and any unavoidable overlaps.  Create a process for handling uncertainties and tensions.
• Quickly document and distribute agreements and action items from meetings.
• Create and reinforce a common team vocabulary of key terms; this is especially important on multicultural/multilingual teams.
• Ensure shared information is up-to-date and timely.
• In meetings ask open-ended questions to reveal differences in interpretation.  Summarize regularly, and have team members paraphrase key points.
• Help all team members to understand how their work fits into the bigger picture.

For more on how to leverage virtual communication technologies for increased business performance, see our Digital Fluency curriculum here

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