Getting the best from virtual teamworking

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So I’ve been working with wholly or partially dispersed or virtual teams for around 15 years, across a number of industries and today, I’d like to talk about what I’ve learned from working with these teams to help them ensure that they get the very best from themselves and from others in the team when working at distance. This podcast is best consumed in combination with my others on Making homeworking work for you (Season 6, Episode 12) and Getting the most from remote management (Season 7, Episode 1), so check those out too. Whether you’re a team leader, or a team member, in a virtual team, or even in a co-located team to be honest, this podcast is for you.

My name’s Dr Paul Brewerton, the strengths guy – I’m a Doctor of Psychology so I know stuff about people. I podcast each Monday to set you up for a positive and productive week ahead, on all topics work, life and strengths-related. Today’s a crossover of work and strengths, so let’s get straight to the topic du jour.

Now, the challenges with virtual teamworking are several and can include time zone differences, communication challenges, people not feeling connected or involved, fewer non-verbal cues than in co-located environments. Here’s what the science says about virtual teamworking…

  • Teams with a strong group identity tend to feel closer and more united
  • Team members who share personal information, like stuff they enjoy or information about family life, develop deeper connections and greater trust
  • This is important: trust among team members starts lower in virtual teams than in face-to-face teams, but over time, it can build to the same levels
  • Formalising a virtual team’s goals, roles and communication methods at the start of the team’s journey improves effectiveness
  • Shared leadership rather than hierarchical leadership is associated with improved team performance, probably because it’s impossible for one person to direct an entire project, so team leadership works best with team members leading in their areas of expertise.

So with all that, and so so much more, in mind, I bring you my tips for getting the best from virtual team working.

Virtual teamworking

Clear purpose

Clear purpose and goals more than anything else helps a team to come together around a shared vision of success and of where they can create value. So take the time to establish what that team purpose is and make sure it’s communicated regularly.

Clear roles

Within the team and/or within a project, people need to be clear what specifically they do, and what their colleagues do, when it comes to delivering on the team’s goals. So make sure everyone is crystal on that.

Seek first to understand

Don’t make assumptions, really find out about other members of your team…cultural differences, time zones, different ways of working, preferences, etc. Get personal – when people join the team, or when you start up a team, make time and an effort to have 121s to make connections personal and to hear everyone’s background stories. This is more likely to build trust quickly in a dispersed team, based on understanding, familiarity and respect.

Get physical

At the kick off of any project team, it’s important to come together physically if this is at all possible, and then periodically, to make that time together. It’s just a human need to be together physically some of the time and to connect or reconnect informally. One global virtual team I worked with for many years used to spend the first half day of each annual retreat I ran with them just chatting and socialising, meeting for the first time or reconnecting. The power of that connection can’t be underestimated.

Know and utilise strengths

As well as being clear on the skills and roles of each team member, it’s really important that the team knows who to come to for the less obvious stuff, the strengths stuff – examples of what you might be able to borrow from a colleague: making networking connections (Relationship building strength), understanding a key stakeholder (Empathy strength), help with a negotiation (Persuasiveness or Courage strengths), figuring out a knotty problem (Critical thinking or Creativity strengths) and so on and so on. Use Strengthscope, or StrengthscopeTeam, and you’ll have all the info you need about individual and team strengths in one handy place.

Be clear on risks

As well as knowing individual and team strengths, understanding risks is also important – so what shows up under pressure for members of your virtual team and for the team overall? Is the team lacking in Relational strengths but high on Execution strengths? Well there’s a risk then that the team might not engage stakeholders sufficiently well, particularly if virtual, but instead will just move to action, maybe losing people’s engagement along the way. So, the relational side might need to be dialled up to compensate for this. And individuals in the team will also have risk areas, most often appearing when under stress, that ideally will be known by all team members so those risks can be lessened by other team members providing support.

Understand team process and check in

Whatever team model you use…Tuckman’s model is a classic for example…help the team to understand that team development is a process, it takes time, it isn’t easy and it ebbs and flows. So checking in on the team’s stage of development and current health is a really important part of virtual teamworking to make it ok to be wherever you’re at as a team development-wise.

Team charter

Once the team is reasonably established, putting together a team charter, with a simple set of rules of engagement, rules of communication, what is ok and not ok in this team, can be really helpful as a way of gelling the team and giving clear guidelines to existing and new team members. This is particularly important in virtual teams where clarity and assurance are needed on how things work, so that everyone works to the same principles.

Personal connection

This is so so so important for dispersed teams. Voice and video communication, as much as needed, in various whole team and sub-team groups, is essential. People prefer different communication modes it’s true but feeling someone’s presence is different on voice or video than on email or text, so make sure everyone’s preferences are catered for.

Meeting hygiene

Good meeting habits with virtual teams take on a new dimension as you can’t so easily see the faces in the room, so super important to make sure the right people attend, the agenda and objectives are clear, each meeting is well-chaired, everyone is included and can participate and be heard and that actions and next steps are clear for all. With good tech, virtual team meetings can be more efficient than in person meetings, but the personal part might be missed, so make time for it at the beginning or end, but contain it or it may get in the way of the meeting proper.

Feedback

Inevitably, virtual teamworking ain’t gonna be perfect all the time and people will grate on each other for whatever reason. But in the virtual team world, sitting on resentment or misunderstandings can be really unforgiving and can sometimes cause a total breakdown in productive working relationships. So my advice is, don’t let it fester, face into it and give the feedback as soon as possible…people like clarity. My podcast as Season 1, Episode 4 gives you a plan for Great feedback in 3 steps, so go get it!

OK, that’s it on getting the best from virtual teamworking. If you’re interested in the Strengthscope method for helping develop stronger virtual teams (and we’ve been doing that very thing for a lot of years), check out StrengthscopeTeam. You won’t be sorry. Till next time!

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