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Developing virtual teams that thrive

05.01.2017 • Holger Nauheimer


We might have exceeded the 2013 prediction of Tammy Johns and Lynda Gratton. In an article for the HBR, they projected that soon more than 1.3 billion people will be virtual workers. Are you part of the that workforce? If you work in a company or a non-profit organization that has offices or production sites in more than one location, and if you are connected to somebody in one of those, you are. Actually we have been working virtually ever since telephones made their entry into offices.

However, still we are not able to let go our mental model of team work being something that is happening when people are together physically, at the same place. Many attempts to create highly effective virtual teams–groups of people working together separated in space and time–have failed and virtual offices haven't reached the status of brick-and-mortar offices. It is it ironic that companies still invest much more in physical infrastructure than in their virtual work environment. Why?

A possible answer to this question might be that we haven't really comprehended the multiple aspects of what it takes to grow virtual teams. 30 years ago Robert Dilts–taking further the earlier work of Gregory Bateson–suggested a model for learning and development processes. He called it the "Logical Levels" and it can be applied to all kinds of personal and organisational change. Here comes an attempt to use it for explaining what needs to be done in order to make virtual teams fly.


ENVIRONMENT: There are quite some challenges that teams face when they want to design the collaboration space that fits their purpose, is empowering and user friendly, and works flawlessly. It is not that the right tools aren't available. There is a wide choice of platforms which serve any given needs, for asychronous, near-time and in-time collaboration. The problem starts when a team decides to use a specific tool and the answer of the IT department is NO WAY! One has to understand this: in the modern world, the security of an organisation's ICT is indispensble, therefore the IT department has become the most important guardian of corporate integrity. The problem is that IT nerds have very different collaboration behaviours and needs than the other parts of the business. It's not enough to tell them to design a collaboration suite. Teams need to identify and define requirements of their ideal virtual work environment and then get into a negotiation process with IT.

BEHAVIOUR: Tom Coughlan has described the concept of virtual proximity–ability to build relationships with the help of communication technologies. While I will speak about skills in the next section, it self-evident that building relationships is an act of doing. In the world we come from–characterized by physical encounters and coincidences–we don't need to think about how to build relationships (well, sometimes we should!). We learn that from the craddle and some of us are better than others. In the real world, it is helpful to make an effort for building relationships. In the virtual world, it is indispensable to make an effort. We need to make contact frequently and we need to support others in their struggle to master the different aspects of the virtual environment.

There is one more: reliability. in virtual environments it is much more difficult to justify missing a deadline. If we do not interact as often as we would in a physical office setting, assumptions about the reliability of colleagues are built up quickly. Correcting our stereotypes and biases–not easy as such–is even harder. So we better deliver on our promises.


SKILLS: Having said this, it becomes evident that the most important skills for virtual team members are not the technical ones. They are related to our emotional intelligence (EI). Just to remind you: 

EI is the capability of individuals to recognize their own, and other people's emotions, to discriminate between different feelings and label them appropriately, to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, and to manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt environments or achieve one's goal(s). (Source: Wikipedia)

Because we are at distance from each other in virtual teams, we need to learn balancing advocacy for our cause and inquiry about the other team members' purposes, concerns and needs. Any conversation model that is out there will serve this purpose, but this time we need to take it seriously. Related to that is the skill to let go. We just can't force things to happen–if the person at the other end of the line doesn't want or isn't able to follow our requests. So you need to develop your appreciation and constructive feedback skills as well because this is how you motivate people.

PRESUPPOSITIONS: The beliefs we hold about virtual work have a strong impact about how we feel about it; and consequentially how we develop our skills and how we behave. And don't tell me it is related to age! It is not, as many older and elderly people who are virtual wizzards demonstrate (count me into that group!). If we believe that virtual work sucks, that it's ineffective and in no way a replacement for good old physical encounters, it will indeed. When I work in a virtual teams I make sure that our basic belief are: you can collaborate effectively if you have the right virtual environment, behave adequately and constantly develop your skills. And that virtual work can be fun.

IDENTITY: here comes the cherry on the cake. And it's so simple but it does the trick: you need to revisit and redefine who you are as a team. If you embrace your new identity as a virtual team, everything will be easy. Because you will look forward for every interaction with your team mates and you will tirelessly strive to improve your environment, behaviour, and skills. And when it is the time, you will enjoy meeting your peers in person. Because then you can do for what our smart engineers haven't found an online surrogate: drinking and eating together, touching each other, spending joint time at the beach or at any other hangout. And you will enjoy that because you know that work can wait until you are back to the virtual office.

(image: under CC license)


PS: There have been several attempts to widen the logical levels model, the most popular is from Robert Dilts himself. The intention of opening the model is to show that everything we do has a purpose and it is this purpose that drives us, as individuals, teams and organisations. It is also called vision, or mission or reason to be. For virtual teams, the question that derives from this higher level could be "Why are we doing all of this?" If the answer isn't empowering and motivating, there is no point in finding a common team identiy. 


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