Can your remote colleagues become a team?

Theresa Sigillito Hollema

Why do so many managers of virtual teams forget that their team works virtually?  When the manager sets aside the time and money to focus on a team building session, why do they fail to put ‘building virtual competence’ on the agenda?   Perhaps because they do not realize that to work virtually is more than an onsite team who turn on their computers.  Working virtually requires a new way of collaborating, building trust, brainstorming, making decisions and influencing, which has a major impact on the team success. 

One example is building trust, which is the glue that binds team members together.   In general, we experience three types of trust –

1.     relationship built on affinity and likeability,

2.     competency based on ability and reliability,

3.     mutual support - belief that you will help me if things go wrong. 

An onsite team builds trust first by focusing on the relationship and mutual support.  A team leader should then organize activities to support that trust building process – such as team dinners, offsite team activities, eating lunches together.  A virtual team, in contrast, starts with swift trust, which is trust that is from the start and must be quickly verified by competency, delivery and reliability.  Therefore, a team leader should design the workflow so that team members can quickly prove to each other that they can deliver quality in a reliable manner.  Thereafter, trust in the relationship and mutual support can follow with a focus on team members personally connecting. 

This is one example of the multitude of differences between onsite and virtual teams.  What should you as a team leader or member of a virtual team do to help your team succeed with the complexity of working virtually?  Spend time and energy to develop virtual team competence:  the ability to understand the impact of using technology to work with colleagues who are remote and to respond accordingly to build relationships, achieve results and develop professionally.   Some steps would include:

  • Provide the resources (trainings, books, videos) for the team to have the knowledge of what it means to work virtually.    You can organize these onsite or online, and the team can learn the content together.
  • Organize the facilitation of your team as to the application of this knowledge.  Ideally your team members would be ready to apply the knowledge by reflecting on their intentions, and adapting their behavior to collaborate and work with colleagues who are remote.    During these discussions, or ‘critical conversations’, the team members need to share their expectations with each other and agree on norms of working. 
  • Monitor the impact of these new practices on communication, connection, and team results.  Continuously check and discuss progress and adapt as appropriate.

As a reminder, building virtual competence is in addition to developing the team and building cultural competence.  Multi-cultural, virtual teams are complex and with the right attention and guidance they can become high performance as well!

Interested in more practical advice on how to collaborate effectively with colleagues across geographies? In our Workshop Thriving Virtual Teams on 31 January 2017 in Amsterdam, you will learn an extensive approach for working virtually, beyond tips and tricks!