At End Of Road You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully. Enter Command >

This is how the first arcade text-based adventure game began. You played by entering 5 letter commands – there were no visuals whatsoever, you had to use logic and your imagination to figure out what might happen next. Your navigation of the game were  limited by a range of cryptic text-commands. It is also exactly how working in and managing a virtual team feels.

For most of the day, you have to rely on text-based cues from emails that you catch from people you care about separated by multiple time zones. Even when you speak with them during your weekly video calls you have to uncompress their week’s experience from the limited time you have together. How are they feeling, what’s going on at home you wonder, are they happy, are they overstretched, are they inspired by their work – these are just some of the questions that regularly cross your mind when you are running through the laundry list of tasks and team priorities. If you’ve ever had to work with someone who is not physically in the same room as you on a regular basis you know what it’s like to work in a virtual team. Why do we work like this and what can be done to make the experience smoother and more enjoyable for everyone?

Why work in teams?

Why do we work in teams in the first place? Sometimes they are great, fulfilling experiences that help us grow, but we’ve all been part of dysfunctional teams where we cant wait for the project, week, or even day to end. Teams are an essential part of being human, and despite beng a herd species they are not for everyone. many artists, writers, mathematicians get along fine without working with others. But for most of us they help us to get more done – to work, like ants or bees do – and achieve greater things together than we can as individuals.

What makes a good team?

Great teams feel effortless: when you’re working in one, it’s as if things were always like this. Each person feels like they are doing their best work, like they are being stretched and they know and are inspired by each other’s skills and abilities. Great teams share common ways of working, or common values, terminology, or experiences. Because of this, information exchange is fluent and seamless and getting stuff done just happens so easily.

How are teams changing

The barriers to where and whom we do business with have fallen away with the rise of communication technology and the internet. Trade boundaries seem almost insignificant. Who provides the resources and skills that your business needs ..

The need for working in teams that span timezone and geography has risen: sales teams that need to share global leads and meet shared targets, operational teams that need to synchronise processes, airlines that need to manage workforce schedules. Technology such as video conferencing, messaging, email, somehow still seems to be one step behind our growing need for staying connected both from a practical sense but also emotionally.

Challenges

  • Cultural differences. Humans are contextual animals: it’s not just about where people are from, but where they live now and their immediate surroundings that affect how they behave – what they feel is valuable, what they pay attention to, and what they do for fun.
  • Assumptions fester. 
  • All business. The temptation when timezones overlap by precious few hours or minutes is to have tight agendas and prioritise assignments and deadlines. This behaviour leave no time for office banter, and for relationships to be purely transactional.
  • Everyone’s experimenting. This new way of working is new for everyone – it’s unprecedented and that brings a burden of effort because we’re all learning as go – about how to lead in a virtual team and about the technology we’re using to mediate interactions.

Tips on running a successful virtual team

  1. Make sure someone is taking the temperature of the team. Ensure someone has a picture of how everyone’s feeling, what they are doing, and where the conflicts or issues lie.
  2. Create shared beliefs. As well as having a clear strategy, shared beliefs help to create that sense of belonging that you are part of a pack and helps ensure alignment on where you’re all going.
  3. Clarity of role, ambiguity of task. Give people the freedom to be creative in how they do what they do. This helps encourage self-management and leadership.
  4. 720 degree feedback & recognition. Give them the right feedback and recognition so they can keep doing great work. Provide regular feedback and make sure it’s specific.
  5. Focus on the whole person. Find ways to understand how people are doing not just in their jobs, but in their personal lives. Play games, be curious about each other. Don’t let every call be “all business”.
  6. Balance long & short term goals. It’s much harder to see whether everyone is on track to meet their individual and collective targets. Make sure you’ve got long term goals and share each other’s 6 month/ annual objectives, but track progress against a much shorter timeframe. Use weekly progress updates that are shared amongst the team to create transparency and the reinforce the sense that you’re all in it together and moving in the same direction.
  7. Know when to invest in in-person meetings. Studies have shown that in-person interactions at the start of team members’ project or working relationship can be highly effective and mean that virtual interactions can support the kinship that has arisen. Leaving it too late, however, can make any kind of interaction harder.
  8. Make sure that each person has initiatives they can call their own. This helps build confidence and trust in the rest of the team and helps them understand each other’s strengths, which can in turn lead to more opportunities for intra-team collaboration.

Do you work in a virtual team? What have you learned? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Nathan