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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.