Many of us perform a great deal of work virtually these days. While many technologies have enabled effective virtual work, significant challenges remain when it comes to leading teams whose members are not co-located. I recently came across a blog post by my former colleague, Michael Watkins (author of the bestseller, The First 90 Days), about how to lead virtual teams effectively. He offers ten terrific tips. I found two of his suggestions particularly helpful. They are posted below:
Get the team together physically early-on. It may seem paradoxical to say in a post on virtual teams, but face-to-face communication is still better than virtual when it comes to building relationships and fostering trust, an essential foundation for effective team work. If you can’t do it, it’s not the end of the world (focus on doing some virtual team building). But if you can get the team together, use the time to help team members get to know each other better, personally and professionally, as well to create a shared vision and a set of guiding principles for how the team will work. Schedule the in-person meeting early on, and reconnect regularly (semi-annually or annually) if possible.
Commit to a communication charter. Communication on virtual teams is often less frequent, and always is less rich than face-to-face interaction, which provides more contextual cues and information about emotional states — such as engagement or lack thereof. The only way to avoid the pitfalls is to be extremely clear and disciplined about how the team will communicate. Create a charter that establishes norms of behavior when participating in virtual meetings, such as limiting background noise and side conversations, talking clearly and at a reasonable pace, listening attentively and not dominating the conversation, and so on. The charter also should include guidelines on which communication modes to use in which circumstances, for example when to reply via email versus picking up the phone versus taking the time to create and share a document.
I agree with both of Michael's recommendations here. I would simply add an important element to his concept of a communication charter. All teams, whether virtual or not, should think carefully about shared norms and ground rules with regard to how team members will interact. That goes beyond the very specific types of ground rules associated with online or phone conversations described above. All teams should consider developing shared norms and ground rules regarding how they will engage in thoughtful debate, express dissent respectfully, engage in active listening, avoid interrupting others, prepare for meetings, and provide necessary materials in advance (among other things). Leaders need to hold people accountable for adhering to these ground rules. What's the best way to develop these norms? Collaboratively. Rather than simply providing your team with a set of rules, a leader is best served to work with the team to develop shared norms which everyone is comfortable adhering to moving forward. Buy-in is crucial.