“Teamwork” is difficult to define. Most of us know what good teamwork looks like, but we’re not sure how to assess whether we are creating the right conditions for teamwork to flourish, especially when it comes to a virtual environment.
Bruce Tuckman, best known for his five stages of group development, referred to a highly functional team as one “able to address issues and solve problems as they arise and work together productively.” (1)
Quite some decades later, we’re still fascinated and puzzled by what constitutes effective teamwork. In 2012, Sandy Pentland and his colleagues at MIT studied collocated teams in organizations over seven years and discovered that over 30% of the variation in team performance was due to their communication patterns: who was talking to whom (engagement), the quality of the interactions (energy) and whether they were talking to people in other teams (exploration). (2)
And just when we’ve started dissecting teamwork in an in-person context, BANG! Broadband becomes a commodity and companies of all sizes rediscover the potential of virtual teams.
Nurturing Virtual Teamwork, Step by Step
Just as the analogue workplace is going through an office design revolution, so in the online space, we’re starting to unpick what constitutes a suitable digital work environment.
With adoption of tools specifically created for online teamwork, it’s worth pausing to think how each of our tools and processes are contributing to our team development.
How do we start this mammoth task?
Well, how about letting the letters in ‘VIRTUAL’ guide us? (I could have used “distributed” but we’d be here all day, and “remote” has two ‘e’s, which makes it more challenging…)
So, grab a cup of coffee and see whether you can mentally tick whether your current set-up supports these areas of teamwork.
V is for Visibility
In order to be able to “address issues and solve problems as they arise and work together productively,” we need to know team members’ availability. This becomes especially important in cross-functional teams or teams of freelancers when people divide their time between projects or companies.
With one glance at the screen on Sococo, you can see who’s around. You can rename the rooms to signal your availability and status. Even though you can also do this by changing your individual status, a system where you can quickly see who’s in the “Back Later” room allows you to find out very quickly who you can ask for help.
Making our availability visible is not enough though. Our work, or at least our progress, needs to be visible to the rest of the team.
If you are working on different projects at the same time, You can change the names of the rooms in Sococo to help you visualize this. Hence you can see who’s working in the “Presentation to Client” room and which Scrum teams are kicking off their day in the “Daily Standup” room.
For more detailed work progress, I would also recommend Trello. It offers a visual way of following progress and can be used as an organic agenda for your meetings.
I is for (Team) Identity
One of the things team members fear when going virtual is that the “team spirit” will get lost, that the identity of the team will be diluted as members interact less with each other in person. Simple rituals like getting together once a week on video for virtual coffee, having an asynchronous channel in Slack, or a group in Yammer dedicated to an interest your team members share can strengthen your team’s identity. Identify experiences, however small, that make your team unique.
Another simple way of developing your identity is by customizing your tools and collaboration space. Name your Trello Boards and Lists in ways that reflect your values or what’s going on in your team. Customize the names of your Sococo rooms in a playful way. Rename the “random” channel in Slack.
R is for Results
Another common fear when starting to work in a virtual team is that we won’t communicate sufficiently or that our asynchronous communication will be misunderstood. But if we’re not careful, in our desire to stay connected and seek clarity, we might create too much noise.
Long threads on collaboration platforms can be difficult to follow, so consider using direct messages when your conversation is really only useful to one other person and when possible, jump on a video call to continue a conversation that is dragging out.
For those teams distributed in space but not in time, there is a danger of replicating the worst of buzzing office life (constant interruptions) in the online space. For example, if logging onto Sococo is part of your daily routine, make sure there is a room where you can go to for some peace and quiet, a room where you won’t be disturbed. People know you’re around, but can see you hard at work.
T is for Trust
I’ll be blunt here. There is a lot of talk about the virtual watercooler when it comes to building trust. Informal conversations and sharing bits of our personal lives and values go a long way in understanding other people, thus reducing fear of the unknown.
But in essence, trust in the virtual world is no different than in the co-located one: if you’re not available when you say you’re available, if you don’t keep your word, if you only ever act in your self-interest, if you don’t acknowledge your mistakes or if you are intolerant of other people’s errors, no amount of random conversation or spontaneous interactions is going to help you to build trust.
U is for Upgrowth
Most of our learning happens spontaneously, as we talk through a problem with someone, as we realize we need a new bit of information and as we perfect a recently acquired skill.
In virtual teams, it’s easy to forget that our team members can be our most useful resources—and that we can be a great resource for our team. You can learn asynchronously from each other by having a thread/group/channel where you share articles about your industry and competitors. You can have a monthly meeting where you share something new you’ve tried out. Mix synchronous with asynchronous activities and have a balance of group conversations and one-on-ones. Whatever you decide to do, make it part of your team’s DNA.
A is for Appreciation
According to IDEO’s Culture of Helping(PDF), “Helpfulness must be actively nurtured in organisations, because it does not arise automatically amongst colleagues. Individuals in social groups experience conflicting impulses: as potential helpers, they may also be inclined to compete. As potential help seekers, they may also take pride in going at it alone, or be distrustful of those whose assistance they could use.” (3)
Small gestures can go a long way. So when you see that Andy is in the coffee room in Sococo, take two minutes to pop over, switch on your microphone and say, “You know that feedback you gave me on my presentation? It helped me a lot yesterday; I was a lot less nervous. Thanks!”
Helping others is a way of showing appreciation. And showing appreciation is a way of nurturing a culture of help.
L is for Leadership
As we tackle the ‘L’ in VIRTUAL, we’re back where we started.
For team members to be “able to address issues and solve problems as they arise and work together productively” they need to have access to information, they need to know when they can take decisions on their own and they need to know other team members well enough to find the right people to collaborate with. We need to be able to take the lead, to be led, and to manage our own work.
Virtual teams provide a great opportunity for team members to take the initiative to improve the team’s processes and to take responsibility for their own performance and behavior.
Taking the time to find the right tools and processes for our team can help us to create those patterns of communication associated with great teams: high quality interactions, communication channels spanning team members and being so up to speed our team’s work that we feel able to go and talk to other teams.
Our first VIRTUAL not Distant ® audit has been designed to help managers and leaders of virtual teams to identify which areas of teamwork need attention. Give it a try!
(1) Stewart, N. and Wainwright, J. “Managing Team Performance.” Training Journal. Sept 2012. P.32 – 36
(2) Pentland, S. “The New Science of Building Great Teams.” Harvard Business Review. April 2012. https://hbr.org/2012/04/the-new-science-of-building-great-teams
(3) Amabile, T., C.M. Fisher and J. Pillemer. “IDEO’s Culture of Helping” Harvard Business Review. Jan – Feb 2014 http://www.ds.ideo.tv/images/uploads/news/pdfs/R1401C-PDF-ENG_IDEOs_Culture_of_Helping.pdf