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Who Moved My (Virtual) Water Cooler?

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When’s the last time you bumped into a colleague unexpectedly in the hallway and after a brief chat, came away with a brilliant solution to a problem that’s been vexing you for weeks? If you’re part of a virtual team, it’s probably been awhile.

Even in the largest global organizations, few virtual teams have regular opportunities for the kind of serendipitous encounters that lead to real a-ha moments and unexpectedly illuminating conversations. In part, that’s because many companies have not consciously tried to create mechanisms that mimic the kind of casual conversations that can take place when people see each other frequently. What’s more, many companies frown on the use of social networking tools and other informal “nonwork” conversations at work, viewing them as more of a distraction than an enabler for making needed connections.

In “Who Moved My Cube?” (Harvard Business Review, July-August 2011) authors Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks lay out three important conditions that must be in place to promote the kind of conversations that lead to more collaborative, cooperative and creative conversations, whether team members work together or apart: Proximity, Permission and Privacy.

In this edition of Communiqué, I build on some of Fayard and Weeks’ excellent ideas to provide virtual teams with several ways they might replicate the kind of environment that enables casual conversations just like the water cooler, cafeteria or conference room does for teams that work together.

  • Create a level playing field: Make sure that all team members have access to the same tech tools and apps. For example, do all use the same IM service? If not, can everyone switch to a universally available app, like Skype, without incurring the wrath of IT? How can you accommodate members of your extended team who sit over the firewall? If a phone call is needed, does everyone have the ability to set up conference calls? Assuming visual presence will be important for at least some conversations, are webcams or video feeds accessible to all?
  • Determine the extent of virtual proximity your team needs. Team members who work in the same place can drop in for a quick chat when they see their colleagues huddled in the caf or lingering at the coffee machine. Members who work from a distance also need ways to detect the presence of others so they can decide whether to stop by. When creating avenues by which team members can establish and detect presence with others, consider questions such as: Would most team members be satisfied with a quick hello at the start or end of a workday? Are some people looking for opportunities to engage in longer conversations periodically, or frequently? Do some people feel a constant need to check in with others? Are some more happy being left alone, at least sometimes? Start with lowest common denominator (e.g. Everyone wants to be able to check in with the group at the start or end of each day), and then build up additional communication paths from there.
  • You can lead a horse to water. People will need compelling reasons to participate in emergent team conversations, whether asynchronous or real-time. (In fact, some team members may regard any non-necessary conversations as chatter that steals time away from “real work.”) Consider making participation mandatory, at least at first, geared toward a specific work-related purpose. For example, ask that everyone post at least three “burning” questions on a shared whiteboard, and then respond to at least three of their colleagues’ pressing questions with their own best answers, the compilation of which you can review during your next team meeting. Or schedule a choice of a few different hours when team members can join a real-time chat to brainstorm names for a new service offering, rather than doing this on a larger team call.
  • Now persuade that horse to drink. As people start to see this type of interaction as valuable, they’re more likely to participate with greater frequency. Virtual team leaders can encourage participation by taking an active role themselves, either by starting new threads, initiating group IMs, or simply by (transparently) listening in. Recognizing and rewarding team members for active sharing can do wonders to stimulate more interaction.  Posting important news in shared team areas, vs sending email, can also spur participation.
  • Establish ground rules, sometimes. Many people are easily drawn into conversations, while others just want to work quietly. Ground rules can be vital for spelling out how virtual team members will establish and detect presence, and how often. For example, are all members expected to have IM (or Twitter, Skype, etc.) always on as long they’re working? Under what conditions can team members designate a “do not disturb” time? Is it reasonable to expect instant responses, or is a two-hour response time okay? Sometimes it’s better to create ground rules as you go, and only if needed. For example, in a “virtual café” type of meeting place where the effortless movement in and out is regarded as a key attractor, the fewer the operating norms, the better.
  • Let’s do lunch. Or breakfast. Designate a regular time once every one or two weeks where people can sit around a virtual table and enjoy an unstructured conversation much as they would in the cafeteria. (If people have access to webcams, so much the better.) This time can be used for informal check-ins, sharing new ideas, tapping colleagues’ brains to solve a particularly thorny issue or, simply to convey a feeling of togetherness. Such sessions would not replace a more formal team meeting, and nor should they be mandatory.
  • Allocate meeting time for informal check-ins and check-outs. Open the conference lines at least a few minutes before the official meeting time to allow people time to converse socially. (Keep the lines open a few minutes after the meeting, too.) Give people who join early or stay late a little something extra to look forward to by revealing answers to the “question of the week” or doling out a particularly juicy new piece of information during those times.
  • Give people permission to actively seek out conversations that are “off-task.” Team leaders can help by encouraging the use of communication forums like team wikis, blogs, Twitter feeds and FaceBook pages, with permission from IT, of course. Be specific about how you envision the team using a particular tool. Examples: “Let’s start a lessons learned blog to make it easy for everyone to contribute to our project’s post mortem discussion” or “Can we create a new wiki thread for trip reports, so we can share what we’ve all been learning on the road?”
  • Model the behavior you want to encourage by actively participating in team exchanges yourself—of course, only when you’re invited to participate (more on privacy later). Even though you may be the team leader, avoid sounding like the team task-master. Remember: you want team members to be drawn into these conversations, not running the other way as soon as you step in. Resist the temptation to rein in social conversations during times of stress. That’s exactly when your team will need it the most!
  • Establish privacy policies.  For example, which team communications can the company screen or retain, if not all? Which exchanges will the team leader be privy to? What levels of confidentiality can team members expect, and what information may they share freely, and with whom? What obligation do team members have to include all team members in a particular conversation? What topics are strictly off-limits, and who’s monitoring this? When your virtual team includes external people, you’ll need to examine privacy policies carefully, especially around the handling and sharing of confidential information.

Shaping the virtual workplace to afford these vital interactions takes creativity, sensitivity and a lot of trial and error. Leaders need to carefully consider the team’s make-up, culture, communication preferences, task interdependencies, time zones, native languages, and a host of other factors.

Always keep in mind the need to balance the three P’s (proximity, permission and privacy). Excessive proximity (24×7 sharing of information) can be overwhelming and distracting. Giving too much latitude for spending time in non-work conversations may be misinterpreted or abused. Affording too little privacy may discourage open sharing, and encouraging overly restrictive interactions might serve to alienate those who feel left out. The key is to afford everyone the same opportunities to gather at the team’s virtual water cooler when it makes the most sense for them.

Links

HBR article summary: Who Moved My Cube? By Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks

Practical Guidelines for Brainstorming Across Borders – tip sheet by Nancy Settle-Murphy

Best ice-breakers for remote meetings by Nancy Settle-Murphy

Our past Communiques: Recipe for Great Virtual Teamwork: The Right Communication Tools at the Right Time and Speed Virtual Connections with the Right Social Networking Tools

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