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Virtual Team Building

March 1, 2010 by Ruth Gmehlin, Partner, Trillium Teams Inc

Working well together as a team, when all the team members share the same physical office space is one thing, but in the world today, virtual teams are quickly becoming the new normal. Just because you are separated by time or space, does not discount the fact that these team members depend on each other to achieve success. The question is, how can you do team building when the team members have never actually met in person?

What is the difference between a virtual team and a team that shares the same office space? Let us take a step back and define what a team is. Work teams are based on the concept that the team members have the right mix of complementary skills and they need to work together to be able to achieve their task. The purpose of a team and its performance goals are tied to each other and both must be clear to meet success. A good team understands the purpose of working together and they have developed a common approach on how they work together, as well as hold themselves accountable for the outcome.

Being on a virtual team means exactly the same thing, with the added challenge that virtual team members primarily interact electronically. At Trillium Teams we believe the same team building concepts apply; they just need to be adapted to meet the needs of the virtual team.

Open and constant communication is the foundation of any relationship and the key to high performance teamwork. If you have not done so already, set aside a meeting to establish clear team norms or communication guidelines to set your virtual team up for success.

One way to do this is as follows:

  1. Have the manager outline as many scenarios of team interaction as possible
  2. During the team meeting, get input from everyone regarding ideal ways to handle each scenario
  3. Based on this discussion, come up with a list of team norms

This discussion and solutions generated will ensure that everyone has had input and is aware on the preferable method of communication and escalation for each problem. Remember, good communication is about more than just business. It is important to form personal connections. Everyone has a different style of communication and preferences for how they work and the only way to get to know these is through open communication and dialogue.

Clear Roles & Responsibilities
Clarifying roles and responsibilities seems deceptively simple. However, this is a common cause for miscommunication and teams breaking down in the regular office setting. This makes the need to clarify roles for virtual teams even more important. Managers and team mates often assume that the roles and responsibilities for each team member were clarified upon starting their position and only needs to be discussed if an issue arises. This can be a big mistake, especially because teams today operate in such fluid, elastic and fast paced environments.

Regular Meetings & Contact
Regular and consistent contact among team members is essential. A weekly or bi-weekly mandatory check-in will keep the lines of communication open. Make sure to clarify exactly what the purpose of each meeting is and how you want to achieve it. Even if the team is not directly dependent on each other for work results, there is benefit to sharing information, challenges, solutions and keeping the team network alive and healthy.

As a tip, you can hold virtual meetings every second week in a roundtable format to give everyone a chance to briefly share what they have been working on and what is coming up next week. Encourage everyone to share a personal anecdote to build rapport and non-work related connections.

Create a Team Charter
A team charter is a simple document which outlines the purpose and goals of the team. The process of creating this together is a great team building tool. This will compel everyone to clarify team norms, roles and responsibilities, escalation methods, etc. As well, the charter provides a written document everyone can refer to, especially new members of the team. Keep in mind, the team charter does not have to be a massive undertaking. It can be as simple as two pages, the key is to make sure everyone has had input and it remains a living document.

Technology Misuse
Finally a note about technology. Too many managers and virtual teams believe good team work is about mastering the technology. So often we hear ... If I could just get access to this software or new technology my virtual team will be successful. This line of thinking can be a deterrent from working on what is truly important and as this article has tried to demonstrate, the old rules still apply. The role of technolog is to help facilitate that communication when team members cannot meet in person.

Techniques To Gain Valuable Employee Feedback

December 1, 2009 by Ruth Gmehlin, Partner, Trillium Teams Inc

Do you really value what your employees think? Can you honestly say that you ask your employees for their input or feedback on a regular basis to see how your team or organization is doing? At Trillium Teams, managers often approach us to facilitate team sessions to help them deal with a difficult situation or a specific challenge they are facing. We strongly believe that the solutions to many of these team and organizational challenges reside within the group. Think about it; team members are like a panel of experts, they know more about their challenges than anyone else because they live and breathe them every day. The trick is, getting at this information, creating a realistic plan for improvement and follow through. This article will provide you, the manager, with two options to help get at these answers with your team.

The Key Role of the Manager

Quite simply, the manager is the organizational culture and the most powerful person in an employees work life. Employees do not leave organizations they work for, they leave the manager they report to. Research clearly shows that manager behaviour is a key predictor of the bottom line of an organization. Managers directly have an impact on employee commitment, prescription drug use, stress leave, absenteeism, job satisfaction and therefore client satisfaction, and retention.

The manager plays a key role in the success of an organization because of their capability to harness the skills, experience and abilities of their staff. A supportive manager who recognizes the value of, and is able to capitalize on, their employees to create the solution to team and organizational challenges, is priceless.

Technique #1: Team Feedback

If you are looking for a group technique to use at a team meeting to gain honest and valuable feedback from your team we would recommend the Fishbowl Technique. Using this technique is a great way for the manager to learn about the work challenges that affect everyone on the team, and suggestions on how to solve these.

The fishbowl technique is a useful facilitation tool to get at the diverse perspectives within the group. As well, this exercise forces everyone to truly hear perspectives of others, which will then serve as the platform for dialogue. Once everyone can agree to what the team challenges are, and what is realistically within their control, a plan can be created to start to solve the issues.

Here is how it works:

  • Select your topic (for example: workload) and email all participants with this a few days prior to the scheduled meeting to give everyone the opportunity to think it over and collect their thoughts
  • At the meeting, arrange four chairs either in front of the group or in the middle, to create a Fishbowl
  • Either select or ask four people to volunteer to discuss the topic
  • As the manager, you introduce the topic, ask questions and keep the discussion flowing
  • For 10-15 minutes, ask as many questions about the topic as possible with the goal in mind to let everyone hear the different perspectives on the topic
  • There should be a scribe noting down the main points of the discussion on a flip chart or whiteboard
  • The audience outside the fishbowl listens to the discussion, they are not able to comment or ask questions
  • After the allotted time is up, ask four new volunteers to participate
  • In the next round, you can ask similar questions, new questions, or ask for solutions to the challenges mentioned by previous participants
  • There can be as many rounds to this exercise as needed and time allows
  • Your role, as the manager, is to facilitate the conversation. It is very important that you listen and do not answer questions or give solutions because the goal is to gain insight and feedback from the team
  • Upon completion of the exercise, sum up what you have heard. We recommend you reserve all comments for a later time. This will give you and everyone else to digest what has been discussed first.

There are many variations of this exercise, but the main point to keep in mind is the end result you are looking for. If you, as the manager, are interested in participating as a member of the team, then we recommend having a neutral third party facilitate this exercise. On average you can run an effective fishbowl for 15 people in 90 minutes; however, the timing of the exercise depends on the situation, how many participants involved and the nature and number of challenges to be discussed.

Technique #2: Individual Employee Feedback Interviews

The second employee feedback technique seems deceptively simple, and can be an extremely effective manner for gaining valuable employee feedback to help build a better team or organization. Conducting focused individual employee feedback interviews is a very powerful tool. These interviews are not to be a conversation and are best conducted following a set template. Here are the steps necessary to conduct effective and valuable employee feedback interviews:

  • Define the reason and objective for holding the feedback interviews. Example objective: How can we make Company X the workplace of choice?
  • Create the list of questions you would like answered during the interview. Remember to keep it short, simple and relevant. An example question list:
    1. What is working well?
    2. Suggestions for how we can build on this?
    3. What could be better?
    4. Suggestions for how we can improve this?
  • Write a brief script to use at the beginning of each interview to ensure consistency and neutrality. Points to consider:
    1. Briefly describe why you are undertaking these interviews, what led you to this point
    2. Briefly explain what you plan to do with the content from all the interviews
    3. Set proper expectations about the confidentiality of the conversation
    4. Conduct the interview, probe as necessary
    5. When completed, re-iterate the purpose of the interview, what you plan to do with the content of all the interviews and thank them for their time

Next Steps: What Do I Do With the Feedback?

Now that you have received the feedback you were looking for, what do you do with the information? The key focus should be that you act on the information. It could be in the form of an off-site retreat where the team creates concrete action plans to address the specific challenges. Or it could be a follow up meeting where you communicate to the team the general results of the fishbowl technique or one-on-one interviews and inform them of the status of each item. There are three important elements to remember, as the manager, in communicating to the team.

Be honest. This may require you to shift your mind set about your role as a manager. To exhibit the strength and confidence to tell the truth, allow yourself to be vulnerable in front of your direct reports and admit you do not have all the answers.

Be as transparent as possible. Be open and honest with your employees about what the current situation is. Give them the overview of what where things stand from your perspective, what your concerns are, what alternatives you see and let them understand why and how you make decisions.

Be sure to set proper expectations. Many of the challenges and concerns that may have come up are actually just improper perceptions of the situation. It may be time for you to reset the proper expectations with the team on certain items.

In Conclusion The valuable feedback and insights you, as a manager, will gain from running either one of these exercises can help reorient team priorities and form the basis for a plan of implementation to successfully address your challenges. Most importantly, employees will feel compelled and empowered to be part of the team, part of creating the organizational culture and part of the solution!

Why Are Exit Interviews Important?

November 1, 2009 by Jill Geddes, Partner, Trillium Teams Inc

Do you really know why your employees are leaving? Exit interviews are an extremely important and useful tool for managers. Proper exit interviews are an excellent opportunity to learn about both the strengths and weaknesses of the manager and the organization, to help understand how best to satisfy and retain employees. Managers know they should do exit interviews but so often when someone resigns they are focused on finding a replacement and figuring out a transition strategy with their team, while also managing their busy workloads. This makes connecting with HR to have an exit interview completed before they leave a last priority. Once that person walks out the door, managers believe that they’ve missed their opportunity; in fact, it is actually more beneficial to do an exit interview after some time has passed.

When Should Exit Interviews Be Conducted?

Most people think exit interviews need to be conducted the instant people say they are leaving. If the exit interview is not completed within the last week of work, the common belief is that there is no longer an option. In fact, the best time to do an exit interview is anywhere from one month up to a year after the person has left their position. This is because it gives the former employee time to gain a more objective and less emotional perspective. The former employee will most likely be in a new role at the time of the exit interview and they will be able to make valuable comparisons; as well they are more likely to be truly honest about the reasons for leaving. So often the concern with exit interviews is that people do not want to burn their bridges, so they are very cautious with their answers; or they do not want to criticize their manager because of concern about getting a good reference. This is much less likely to occur when more time has passed. When the exit interview is conducted after someone has already left the organization, it is seen as a chance to give the manager constructive criticism, since they no longer hold any power over the former employee.

If a manager is concerned that holding an exit interview after the employee leaves will decrease participation, they should not worry. In our experience, former employees are always willing to participate, and give very valuable feedback. At a basic level, people like to be asked and when the effort is made after they have left, they know that their opinion is valued. All former staff gain a new respect for their manager when asked to participate in an exit interview at a later date, rather than not at all.

One-Offs Versus Multiple Exit Interviews

Managers often think that exit interviews need to be done one at a time on an as needed basis. When we work with clients on exit interviews, we actually recommend doing multiple interviews with former staff who have left their team anywhere from two weeks to 18 months. The most obvious benefit of conducting multiple exit interviews is that the feedback can be documented in one telling report. This report combines all the feedback and allows the manager to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the reasons for the attrition, as patterns and trends will clearly emerge. Having the exit interviews conducted by a neutral third party, in a confidential manner, also encourages the former employee to be more open and honest. Multiple exit interviews are still done individually, and everyone is made aware that all interview results will be compiled in one general report. This makes the results much more powerful and useful for the manager, as it allows for the clear identification between patterns and one off comments. This means it becomes clear where to focus their attention for making future adjustments and improvements.

Who Should You Conduct Exit Interviews?

Using exit interviews as a way to get feedback seems ideal, but convincing employees to open up can be difficult. In order to get solid information, it is very important for the interviewer to be as objective as possible, which can be difficult for a manager or an HR professional from within the organization. If the interviewer becomes defensive or biased against them, the employee is more likely to distort their answers or not talk at all. For people to be honest, either someone from HR, or ultimately, a neutral third party vendor should conduct the interview. Participants prefer if the results of the interview are confidential and if the person interviewing is neutral.

What Questions Should Be Asked?

Determining the questions for an exit interview depends on the type of results the manager is looking for. Here is a list of standard questions for an exit interview that are bound to generate good discussion:

  1. Overall, how did you find your experience working on this team?
  2. What did you like about it?
  3. What could have been better?
  4. What was your primary reason for leaving?
  5. What would it have taken for you to stay?
  6. Did you receive enough training and support to do your job effectively?
  7. Did you receive sufficient feedback about your performance between reviews?
  8. Did any policies or procedures (or any other obstacles) make your job more difficult?
  9. Would you consider working for this organization again in the future?
  10. What does your new position offer that your previous one doesn't?
  11. Any other comments?

What Should the Manager Do With the Information?

When the manager receives the feedback from the exit interviews, they will need to go through the results and determine what is within their control of changing and what is not. Ultimately the manager should use the results that are within their control to improve the workplace. This will make things better for the new employees coming in and ensure that the same mistakes will not be made again. The results are an important retention tool; if the manager acts upon the results. After the manager has implemented the changes, it would be ideal if there was a means for measuring the impact of the changes on the team. As an example a team survey or more neutral interviews with current employees six to 12 months after the changes are implemented.

The exit interview results which are not within the control of the manager to make changes, it is extremely important that this information is relayed to the appropriate people within the organization.

Setting Proper Expectations

In order to get the best results and the most honest feedback, it is important to set proper expectations throughout the entire process. Here are a few suggestions to keep in mind:

  • Participants should receive some form of communication, an email or phone call from the manager requesting their participation, and it should always be optional. They should give an overview of the process and who will be conducting the interview.
  • It is important for the interviewer to build trust with the participant and discuss confidentiality. When the interviewer contacts the participant, they should inform them about the purpose of the exit interview, how the information will be used and who will have access to it.
  • Finally, all questions should be optional. If there are comments that the participant does not want to discuss or to be recorded, they need to be given the option.
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