Remote offices, national sales teams, overseas projects, multi-state company mergers, centralized departments separated from the main office, outsourced responsibilities: What do all these organizational groups have in common? The necessity for "virtual teams" of employees, of course.
I’ve consulted for many companies that utilize various, virtual team compositions in many different scenarios. I have identified several challenges that, regardless of the location or type of business, they all face. After hearing the anguish from both leaders and their team members from these companies, I want to help! In order to reduce of the stress and anxiety caused by the adoption of the modern virtual team, here are some ideas to minimize these challenges for your company.
First, let's look at the most common challenges I've seen:
People Don't Get The "Why"
According to Simon Sinek in his book Start With Why, he identifies research that proves the part of your brain that is based on emotion, not language or logic, is what leads us to make decisions. [blockquote-left]We effectively communicate our "why" much better in person due to body language, facial expressions showing passion, and tone of voice.[/blockquote-left]Virtual teams are often working without real understanding of the reason they are working on a project, a task, an objective or goal. As a result, these team members do not understand the "why" or develop the passion behind the work they are doing. This may lead to a severe loss in productivity or even worse: an undesired outcome.
Virtual teams often have an off site leader and an onsite manager. If there is no official onsite manager you better believe one has stepped up as a "de-facto leader." When two or more people are calling the shots and don’t have consistent access to each other, often the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. This often creates situations where mixed messages are being communicated to the team. When clear direction is not given, the team will individually decide which route to take. In addition, it also breeds potential for triangular communication or "mommy vs. daddy" upward communication scenarios causing severe, unwanted drama. Drama the cripples virtual team and sows dissension among the ranks.
Lack of Clarity Around Expectations
We all have expectations of our direct reports and supervisors. In fact, with each new project or client, new expectations often exist. When expectations aren't met it leads to resentment. We take those resentments from missed expectations and throw them in the mental trash can. when that can starts to overflow we break, leading to untimely blow ups or passive aggressive behavior that undermines the health of our organization. [blockquote-right]Expectations are extremely hard to communicate between employees that aren't physically present among each other.[/blockquote-right]
Wins Are Not Celebrated on One End
On either side of a virtual team you have varying responsibilities and roles. One side may be customer facing the other may be internal. One side may be strategic the other is tactical. In situations like this, one side may experience the victory of accomplishment where the other side did the lion's share of the work. When this happens repeatedly over a long period of time, the side without the sense of accomplishment begins to wonder, "Are we doing it right?" As moral on this side declines as does their ability to work together or take direction.
Leading With a "One Size Fits All" Mentality
A favorite leadership quote of mine is, "My job is to find 40 different ways to move 40 different men." Tapping into an employee's individuality to understand what they want most to help them succeed can help mediocre teams become great, or great teams set records. Most managers put this priority somewhere between grabbing an after lunch Starbucks and finding a good parking spot at the office. Maybe they want to do it, but finding time is a challenge. Either way, when it comes to virtual teams, managers find it’s much easier to lead with group virtual meetings, group memos and group emails. This one size fits all mentality never affords each team member the chance to live up to expectations.
Lack of Accountability Measurement
Telling a bunch of people "Hey go do this!" is one thing. Inspecting what you expect along the way is what ensures success. (Along with helping leaders sleep at night knowing the job will get done on time!) With virtual teams it’s a challenge for managers to regularly check on the progress of a job. This unknown causes leaders to be on edge, and virtual teams to walk on eggshells.
Misunderstanding The Intent of a Message
WHY ARE YOU READING THIS? I bet with all those caps you thought I was yelling at you. Have you ever gotten a text from your boss, one of your direct reports, or a spouse and misunderstood it? Have you ever accidentally sent the wrong message because of voice texting or a typo? Messages sent with the best of intentions may still be received with the worst of dissension. This can be a particular issue with international teams who do not all speak the same native language. Always remember, the person receiving the message will interpret it through their lens, not yours!
How Can Virtual Teams Work Better Together?
Failing to address the challenges above and not taking specific measures to compensate will erode trust, lower employee engagement, and lead to severe problems on both sides of the team. How can we, as virtual teams, work better together to ensure a healthy organization? To come up with real and relevant solutions for your unique virtual teams to function better, deeper analysis would be required. However, here are just a few of the solutions that have helped my clients. My hopes are that they point you in the right direction!
Go Full Teenager
What do teens do when they first get their phones and start communicating with each other? Nothing else! Keep the communication going. Text, email, Skype, Google Hangouts...etc. Whatever the form, stay in touch and keep cultivating those relationships via technology. Update each other all the time! Thank each other all the time! Keeping in touch will ensure everyone is on the same page, and wins are reaching both sides of the virtual team! Getting to know one another via relationship building will lessen the amount of messages that miss their mark or are ill received.
Coach Them Over The Phone
In addition to your group digital meetings, have regimented, one on one performance coaching sessions to help your virtual employees develop their careers. This will have a great impact on your virtual teams performance. Ensure they know you care by giving them the gift of coaching. If you don’t know how or aren't confident in your coaching ability (some leaders need help learning to do this remotely) reach out for professional assistance.
Discuss Vision, Goals and Expectations Openly
Collaboration is the key to success. One sided expectations and "telling" will not lead to success. Both parties must come to agreements on the rules of engagement. Make sure to put everything in the arena so that everyone can work together to come up with the best processes, and methods for working together moving forward.
Fake Face-to-Face Communication
Video conferencing, either professionally or even FaceTime, helps bring back aspects of communication you lose being remote. Facial reactions and body language can be observed more easily with video based communication.
Provide Written Correspondence With Verbal
[blockquote-left]Consistency in messaging or the ability to quickly clarify a message is harder with virtual teams.[/blockquote-left]Providing reinforcement of a message in writing, ideally in advance, and after a verbal discussion, helps ensure that a message sticks. This is particularly powerful with teams that do not all speak English as a native language. If the meeting is more formal, use an agenda or slides. Send in advance so your team members can be prepared and also know what to expect. Recap your virtual meetings in a follow up email just after the meeting. Include what you covered, commitments, and action plans to create true clarity and alignment.
Manage As One Team
Regardless of location, ensure you schedule time to talk with all employees together on a call. It helps promote the feeling of inclusion if you allow equal talking time for all members. Ideally, try and do these regularly and keep the agenda similar so teams know what to expect and come engaged and prepared. Any opportunity you have to encourage participate in projects, initiatives, etc across locations with members from all teams, the better!
Try To Meet At Least Once In Person
If budgets and logistics allow, providing for at least one face-to-face meeting, annually, is assuredly worth the return on investment. Yes, while most business could have been done on the phone, forming an in person relationship almost always helps for teamwork down the line.
While working with virtual teams can be extremely challenging, implementing these few steps can make your life a lot easier. Build trust, foster healthy communication, and show them you care and before you know it, you and your virtual team on both sides will be firing on all cylinders. Out of sight, doesn’t have to drive you out of your mind!