As globalization increases and technology improves, team work is becoming more virtual by the day. Creating high performance teams in the same office is already a challenge but creating high performance virtual teams is just that much tougher. However, isolation, confusion and fragmentation are not a fatality. Each of these 3 challenges can be overcome. Below are 7 tips to promote engagement and limit isolation in virtual teams.
- Treat your virtual team like a sports team: name, motto, visual identity, branded merchandising. This can only help in creating a sense of belongingness (not sure about this word but my colleague Shilpa, our very own grammar nazi, approved it).
- Get people to know more about each other: joint festival celebrations with pictures and rewards, SharePoint/wiki with a profile (both professional and personal) of each team member with job description or RACI, psychometric profiles if they exist and people are willing to share them. You can also create a team specific group on a social media platform and share regular official and mundane status updates to know what people are up to. I remember working with a team that was operating between California, Bangalore and Shanghai. In order to plan their project, they’d created a list of public holidays in each of the 3 geographies. After a few months they’d started a decoration competition for the most typical festival in each of these: Thanksgiving, Diwali and Chinese New Year. What they’ decided was that everyone, wherever in the world would decorate their workstation around the theme of the festival, they would take pictures of each of them, post them on SharePoint and have everyone vote for their favourite one. This simple activity allowed the different components of the team to learn about some aspect of each other’s culture and created a fun activity in which everyone was involved.
- When possible, use HD video conferencing technology like TelePresence (TP) or Halo. These are technologies where you see and hear everyone in the room at same time- full size and high definition. Much more effective than traditional video conferencing technology where the camera focuses on the person speaking but we don’t see anyone else, or they are all crowded in the frame. TP is the richest medium for virtual communication: it is like a face to face meeting without the possibility of physical contact. This also means that we can use TP for more informal meetings. A few years ago, I was working with a virtual R&D team that was working for between the West Coast of the U.S and India. The team was plagued by a lack of cohesion between the American engineers and the Indian ones that were working in silos, with a feeling of rivalry and distrust. One of the initiatives we took was to get them to share a meal despite the 12.5 hour time difference. The time difference actually made it easier. We asked the Americans to stay a bit later and bring a pot luck of food from home and we asked the Indians to the same thing, except it was breakfast for them. It did not start well. Silence. Complete silence for 5 minutes…and then something happened. An American engineer stood up, leaned forward eyes opened wide and asked in awe: ”Are you eating spicy food for breakfast?” To this question the Indian engineers laughed and answered that indeed they usually eat spicy food for breakfast. They started showing them, telling them about the different kinds of spiciness, etc. Feeling more comfortable, the Indians then asked the Americans what they were eating and told them that they thought that people in the US only ate pizza and burgers and it was a surprise to them to see them eating salads, Mexican, Chinese, vegetarian and even Indian food. After 10 minutes everyone was happily chatting about cuisine and food habits around the world and the weird experiences they all had. We had 30 minutes scheduled and we had to drag them out of the room for the next meeting to start. They have had the informal meetings once a quarter ever since. For these informal video conference meetings it is important to choose non-controversial topics. Food works well, as every culture has its cuisine(s), it is a good insight in a culture, and most people enjoy eating. The biggest problem is to convince the people who manage the TP rooms to let employees bring food and drinks in these rooms that can cost millions of dollars.
- Make sure everyone gets to celebrate team successes equally. When a project is finished successfully, managers often take their team out for lunch or some other activity to show their gratitude to the team. Just make sure you reward the entire team, whether there are co-located or remote. If the team goes out for dinner, make sure a share of the budget is kept for the remote team members so they can go and celebrate too. Of course it would be better for all of them to go out for dinner together but that is rarely possible. What we can do to reinforce the feeling of belongingness (are you sure, Shilpa? It just doesn’t sound right…) is get everyone to go out on the same day, share pictures the next day and quickly acknowledge the event in the next team meeting (“Hey guys, the pictures of your dinner looked great!. How was the food?”)
- Engage remote team members by making them responsible for certain team activities. This is particularly important when remote workers are working alone. Isolation is stronger in people working from home than remote sub-teams. They are especially isolated if they work only with colleagues that are co-located. One way to overcome this isolation of remote workers is to involve them in team activities: organizing and facilitating the weekly team, presenting in important meetings, organizing the next offsite, etc.
- Share the load of the time zone difference. Nobody likes taking conference calls at stupid o’clock. Make sure that you share the load of weird call timings. This is especially true for team that are separated by more than 9 time zones or for the ones with people spread across multiple locations. This creates a sense of fairness in the team.
- If possible, try and get the entire team to spend a weekend together. Nothing can replace a weekend of fun and informal interaction to create that feeling that we belong to the same team.
If you have other tips to create a sense of identity in virtual teams, feel free to add them in the comments below.
Post Scriptum: One of the best, and funniest, books I have read on managing virtual teams is “Where in the World Is My Team?” by Terry Brake.