5 Tips for Virtual Collaboration

| By TMA World

Virtual collaboration holds amazing promise. When successful, it enables talented peers to work together regardless of location and organizations to mine the collective wisdom of a widely dispersed employee population. In order to tap into this potential, enterprises are increasingly using geographically distributed teams as a key part of their business strategy.

But virtual collaboration comes with its own unique challenges, especially for leaders whose previous experience has been mainly with co-located teams. Various studies have shown that it is more difficult to get virtual teams to bond, harder for informal leaders to emerge, tougher to create genuine dialogue, and easier for misunderstandings to escalate.

If the virtual team is global (as is often the case), leaders face additional complexities – from scheduling meetings around international times zones and holidays and conducting meetings in a language that for many participants is their secondary one. Leaders also must deal with an array of cultural issues that can include differences in business protocol, decision-making, dealing with authority, the concept of time, negotiation styles, and the emotional reactions allowed – or expected – in a business environment.

Our learning programs focus on developing the skills to overcome these challenges. In our Borderless Collaboration course, we share five tips for virtual collaboration:

1) Increase cross-cultural awareness

The first thing that everyone on an international team should do is to understand the challenges that various global team members face. For example, most of the international organizations represented in my audiences conduct their virtual meetings in English. This often results in “code switching,” where participants in remote locations switch back to their native language in “off-line” conversations about items covered in the meeting. When that happens, the English language speakers report feeling dismissed and left out. A frank discussion of the difficulty of processing information in a second language (on one side) and the feelings of exclusion (on the other) can bring increased understanding and empathy for all concerned.

2) Co-create team rules and norms

It is important for all collaborative teams, but absolutely essential for cross-cultural and virtual teams, to understand and agree upon standards and expectations for communication, decision-making, conflict resolution, and meeting protocol. Equally important is the clarification of team goals and priorities as well as each individual’s role, responsibility, and accountability.

3) Build virtual trust

Trust is the foundation for any successful virtual collaboration. It is the glue that bonds team members and builds commitment and engagement. With collocated teams, trust grows out of mutual work experiences and personal interactions – usually extended over time. Virtual teams don’t share this context. Members often have no idea of the work environments of their counterparts, nor do they have insights into a teammate’s work ethic, past performance, or personal life.

Strategies that help remote teams bond include the use of virtual settings (room maps and seating charts), pictures of participants with short descriptions of their professional backgrounds and interesting aspects of their social lives, and artifacts that unite the team (team logo, slogan, etc. on mouse pads and coffee cups) distributed to all sites. It is also helpful to take a few minutes at the beginning or end of a meeting for “small talk,” so that participants can build or deepen personal relationships.

4) Mix communication mediums

Communication mediums run a spectrum from “lean” to “rich.” A lean medium transmits less information than a rich medium. For example, if you are emailing, texting or typing in a chat window (lean mediums), there is nothing that gives added clues to the meaning of what you write. Because they lack social signals, lean mediums are poor transmitters of emotion, intent, or humor. But when the message is straightforward and easy to understand, a lean channel is fine.

The more complicated, emotional, or nuanced your message is, the richer your channel should be. A communication channel becomes richer as you add human elements. Telephone calls and teleconferences give listeners access to vocal clues. Videoconferencing allows participants to view facial expressions and hand gestures. Online virtual worlds — 3D environments in which members interact with each other through avatars — employ the “norms” of real world nonverbal behavior and are a richer medium than a teleconference, but not as rich as a videoconference.

5) Make the first meeting face to face

Virtual teams may be productive without them, but nothing strengthens relationships like face-to-face encounters. In face-to-face meetings, our brains process the continual cascade of nonverbal cues that we use as the basis for trust and professional intimacy. Face-to-face interaction is an information-rich communication channel in which voice, body language, proximity, eye contact, and touch are all present to give deeper meaning to our messages – and to allow us to gauge the instantaneous responses of others.

So, when it comes to bonding virtual teams, there’s no substitution for getting people together. Even if it’s just for one initial face-to-face meeting, the very fact that you’ve given people the chance to get “up close and personal,” goes a long way to sustaining a team spirit and increasing productivity when everyone goes back to their respective workplaces.

Does your organization require support in developing more productive virtual and global teams? Get in touch today to discover more about our learning solutions. 

Interested in how introducing a cultural intelligence tool in your business could help to create a more borderless workforce? We’d love to show you our groundbreaking platform.