Recently, the Orgwide team held a three-day, team-wide meeting. This may not sound too remarkable until you consider that most of our team now works remotely. In order to attend this meeting, our team members came from all over the United States: Texas, Arkansas, California, Ohio, Connecticut, and Tennessee. While we don't hold these meetings every month (that could quickly get pretty darn expensive!), we think it is vital to get everyone together face-to-face at least once or twice a year. Because we are all so distant from each other, it can be too easy to fall victim to being "heads down" in our work and neglect building relationships with our teammates.

Just like Orgwide, many companies are developing virtual teams these days because they offer flexibility, increased job satisfaction, and higher productivity. Due to these benefits, virtual teams are likely only going to increase in size and number in the near term. Essentially, virtual teams are made up of people who work independently but with a shared purpose. Members of these teams may be located across the street or around the globe and they communicate using many of today's latest technologies. Despite these benefits, building virtual teams can present challenges related to communication, conflict management, building relationships, and feelings of isolation (not to mention team members just getting weird and talking to their pets as if they're human beings by the end of the week due to lack of face-to-face social interactions).

But fear not! With a little effort, we can combat these issues and enjoy the spoils of working within a virtual team.

  • Communication: Because virtual teams lose the face-to-face aspect of communication, they also lose the non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and body language. To avoid miscommunication, use the following tips:
    • Make your emails and instant messages as clear and courteous as possible.
    • Actively listen when someone is speaking – don't multitask! Give them your undivided attention. Don't interrupt.
    • Use technology, but keep in mind that not all connections are the same. Speak slowly and clearly.
    • Clarify any message that may have emotional content so it is not misunderstood.
  • Conflict Management: Due to being separated by distance, virtual teams do not always manage conflicts as they come up. Team members may just "let it go." But it is always better to raise potential issues sooner rather than later. A few guidelines:
    • Feedback and bad news is always better delivered in person. However, if this is not possible, try to speak on the telephone or use a video chat. Avoid text, email, or chat sessions for delivering bad news.
    • Voice concerns as soon as possible. Don't let them fester. Be courteous but honest.
  • Relationship Building: Without that interaction at an office or around a water cooler or coffee pot, virtual team members have a harder time getting to know the other members of the team. Without these relationships, it is hard to build trust. And lack of trust can undermine everything the team is working towards. To build solid relationships, use the following tips:
    • Build trust by keeping your word. Meet deadlines you agree to and call your teammate when you say you will. Develop a positive track record with your teammates. Follow up on what you say and your teammates will come to trust and rely on you. Practice DWYSYWD – Do What You Say You Will Do!
    • Respond as quickly as possible to emails or other requests to demonstrate that your teammates' needs are important to you.
    • Be sensitive to other time zones. Try to schedule things when both of you are available and 'in the office.'
    • When possible, gather the entire team to spend time together (even if it is just for a few days). You can meet new team members and reconnect with old ones. These team meetings can result in great brainstorming sessions or collaboration.
  • Coping with Isolation: While there are numerous advantages to working remotely, there is also a risk of team members feeling isolated and cut off from their teammates and others. Often, working virtually means working from an empty home. To combat feelings of isolation:
    • Reach out to others who also work virtually to build a network of friends and colleagues who can empathize with you.
    • Meet with friends to socialize outside of work.
    • Check in with your boss and team mates often to stay connected.

TeamBuildingAt the end of the three days we spent together, our Orgwide team became more connected than ever and we are stronger as a result. We collaborated and created some pretty fun (and cool!) assets. This photo is of a group art project we created together!  We had a lot of laughs and simply enjoyed everyone's company. It is not impossible to stay connected and be successful on a virtual team – you just have to work a little harder and do things more intentionally. But consider all that you have to gain!

Resources:
http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/working-virtual-team.htm
http://vorkspace.com/blog/index.php/best-team-building-activities-for-remote-teams

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