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From Jaded to Jazzed: Quick Tips for Sustaining Happy, Healthy Virtual Teams

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Have you ever been part of a team where you’re inspired and energized by your work, really enjoy the people, feel like you’re making some great contributions, and have meaningful opportunities to learn and grow? If you’re lucky, maybe it’s been once or twice.

If you work virtually, attaining this kind of “team nirvana” is even harder. My friend and colleague Penny Pullan of Making Projects Work invited me to kick off her Virtual Working Summit earlier this summer by sharing tips for maintaining momentum and sustaining energy across teams that work from a distance. Here are some excerpts of listeners’ questions and my responses. (You can order the full set of MP3 files from the Summit. Please see the Links section below.)

What makes some virtual teams jazzed and others jaded? What are some of the contributing factors?

A thoughtful, enlightened team leader makes all the difference in the world. When team members are clear about their goals, contributions, connections and intersections with each other, it’s a lot easier to be energized and motivated. But — when the goals are ambiguous, contributions unclear and connections blurry, it’s easy to be disengaged. And when the team leader doesn’t grasp that virtual teams need to be recognized, appreciated and rewarded in unique and creative ways, it’s easy to lose momentum and motivation. (And an out-of-touch virtual leader may not even realize it!)

We work with virtual teams where the team members tend to come and go in a fairly ad hoc way. Are there any tips for coping with this type of situation?

A virtual team leader needs to act as a connector, or a hub, bringing together team members, leading them to resources and tools they need to be successful. Orienting new members in a virtual world takes a lot more time and attention than it does with new members in a co-located enviroment. New people can get on board much faster if they are assigned a “buddy” they can meet with, virtually, two or more times each month, so they can get a sense for the politics, culture, personalities and organizational dynamics. Virtual team leaders need to replicate that all-important “coffee chat” where people get caught up on insider information, which is especially important for new people struggling to make sense of their new environment.

Can you give us some simple tips to keep a feeling of team spirit and collaboration within a team made up of some members who work together in one location with the leader, while others work in remote locations across the country?

  • Above all, virtual team leaders need to work hard to create a level playing field, making sure that those closest have no material advantages over those who work remotely. For example, give everyone important information at the same time. Offer everyone on the team, regardless of location, a reasonable chance of doing some of the most prized projects and interesting work. Allocate your time evenly among all members. If you spend an hour over lunch with people in your building, create opportunities for casual conversations with those who work remotely.
  • Create something tangible that you can send — some physical manifestation of the team, whether it’s a t-shirt with a team logo, a mug, a mouse pad or a pen. It may sound a little contrived, but it’s important that virtual team members can look at their desk and see their team logo or color and say, “Oh right, I am part of a team, even though we’re not physically connected.”
  • One very simple thing that takes very little time and effort: Assemble a visual map of all team members, with their photos and names around a virtual table, and keep it posted in a central location, and send out updates as members come and go. It’s important that everone remember that there are real people working together who are all connected, and not just some disembodied voices on the end of a phone line.
  • Set up a virtual coffee hour: Set aside an hour for a casual team conversation every two weeks, more or less. Do this during a regular meal time for at least some of the members, perhaps during the breakfast or lunch hour. Encourage free-flowing conversation, with no set agenda. This way, people can talk about anything — what they’re proudest of, most excited about, need help with, their vacation plans. If you have access to video, so much the better. What’s important is to give people a chance to connect socially, apart from official meeting times.

What are some ways that virtual team leaders can express gratitude and introduce reward and recognition into their teams?

  • One of the easiest things to do is simply to send a personal email of thanks, saying a few words about what that person’s contributions meant, and perhaps copying colleagues and managers.
  • Something more meaningful is to send “stuff,” such as a handwritten thank you note. Since sending something through the mail is so rare these days, it’s especially appreciated by the person who receives it, as well as by those who may see the note on that person’s desk. For special contributions or remarkable achievements, send flowers, candy, coffee, a gift card, or a thoughtful book. It doesn’t have to cost a lot. It truly is the thought that counts.
  • Make recognition and appreciation a regular part of team calls. Allocate a few minutes at the beginning or end of each call for each person to name one achievement that s/he was proudest of this week. Encourage peer recognition through a program where team members can nominate a colleague to receive a modest award based on a special contribution made by another team member. This might be a small monetary award, a gift card, or special dispensation of some kind.

When other team members are out of sight they tend to be out of mind really easily. What are some ways you can maintain momentum from afar, especially when meetings take place weekly or perhaps even less frequently?

  • One way to keep a group feeling galvanized is to connect with your team by sending a group IM when you start working, saying something like, “Hey, just checking in, drinking a chai latte as I work on my expense report. What’s everyone up to?” Other people can chime in as they wish, but should feel no obligation. At the end of the day, you can do much the same thing, wishing everyone a good night (or good day, depending on the time zone). It’s an easy way to establish a team presence, allowing people to chat when they can, if they are so inclined.
  • Another simple way to keep the team connected outside of usual meetings: Send or post something fun or interesting, like a “fun fact to know and tell,” a puzzle or riddle or a quote of the day. You can do this every day, once a week, or whenever you think of it. This is an easy way to keep the team feeling connected and doesn’t take much time on anyone’s part.
  • Keep in mind that some people really need that social connection, and others just want to get down to work. If you make most opportunities for social interaction optional, you can usually satisfy both kinds of people.

How do you resolve conflicts between team members who’ve never met in person?

  • That’s a lot harder when relationships are new and you can’t sit down eye-to-eye. If I were the team leader, I would assign these team members to work on some kind of task or project together where they need to have real conversations — not just emails or IMs. You need to give them an excuse to work together, where they need to rely on each other to some extent and begin to cultivate a level of trust.
  • If it’s a serious conflict, I’d schedule a call with the team members to give them a chance to talk through the conflict from their perspectives. This is a case where video would help enormously to show how people are feeling. Some people register very little information in their voices, but express a great deal with their faces and body language. As team leader, I would want them to find ways to resolve future conflicts themselves, with perhaps a little guidance from time to time.
  • By creating a team profile using a tool such as DiSC or MBTI, people can make well-informed choices about which communication style is likely work best for each person, especially under stress. Since virtual teams don’t have the time or opportunity to learn about communication preferences and behavioral styles, this type of team profile can really help people find more effective ways to collaborate.

Bottom line: Keeping a virtual team jazzed requires a great deal of ingenuity, energy and focus. If you make the investment, your efforts will be repaid many times over with a team that’s ready, willing and able to achieve great things — together.

Links

Access resources from this year’s Virtual Working Summit

Past Communiqués: Rewarding, Recognizing and Celebrating Achievements from Afar, How to Disengage Your Virtual Team in 10 Easy Steps

Tips sheet – Celebrating, Recognizing, Rewarding Great Performance of Virtual Teams — PDF file — excerpt from our “101 Essential Tips for Leading Amazingly Productive Virtual Teams” guide