A growing number of companies are instituting virtual workforces allowing the employees to be closer to their customers and working in a remote environment. These remote employees work distantly from the members of their team and may rarely have in person contact. As a manager you soon learn you can set up a group of employees to work as a team, but that doesn’t mean they will feel like a team.
What’s lacking is the personal bonding. In an office, personal bonding usually occurs with colleagues working side-by-side day after day. Relationships develop; people learn about one another, understand each other’s skill sets, hear about family life and gain perspective of each others personal interests. With so many virtual teams spread far and wide across the globe today; can you still cultivate the bonding experience achieved in an office?
The answer is “yes,” but it is not going to be without challenge, effort and proper systems set in place.
A bond is a close personal relationship that forms between people working toward shared goals using collaborative efforts. So how do you duplicate this in a virtual team environment?
“When everyone works together, things start getting done and the nearly impossible tasks are accomplished.”
Where to Begin
Start with a group meeting in person, if possible. Miscommunication and conflicting expectations often arise early in the project. This formal gathering will allow you to:
- Set goals and objectives as a group.
- Define team roles.
- Establish relationships amongst team members.
- Construct a team identity.
- Build a foundation for trust.
If you are not able to bring everyone together in person, create a virtual environment where the team can gather to collaborate on these objectives. It may not be as effective, but it will begin the process and allow your remote employees to interact on a more personal basis.
Developing Team Goals
The entire team needs to have a clear understanding of their purpose and what they are looking to accomplish. Through collaboration a team can develop the goals and the processes needed to achieve their objectives. As the leader it is important you guide the team making sure their action plan is (SMART):
By allowing the team to set the goals for themselves it gives them ownership in the process knowing they had a part in the decision making.
Defining Team Roles
The process of team bonding encourages team members to learn how to manage conflict, evaluate group performance, and provide feedback and support encouraging each member to reach their highest potential. In a team-oriented environment, every member contributes to the overall success of the organization. While each person may have a specific job function, everyone is unified to accomplish the overall objective.
Each team member should have a definite role as part of the group and every member of the team needs to be aware of each associates function and responsibility. Having clearly defined roles enhances the understanding of the workflow and increases productivity. Thereby each member of the team understands what the next person in the process needs to complete their task and can be sure to provide them all the facets needed to do their job properly.
Getting to Know Each Other
In your initial gathering you should allow time for people to get to know one another. You should have a round table where each team member takes a few minutes to talk about:
- Who they are.
- Where they came from.
- Their interests.
- Life experiences.
- Personal goals.
- Professional background.
- Their role on the team.
- What they are looking to achieve in their career.
These types of discussion will open doors for common bonds between the members of the team allowing them to take interest in one another.
Following these discussions the information should be gathered and posted to a team site. As time goes by people lose track of the information shared and interests change so the site should be easily updatable by each member of the team. A good online forum readily available is Facebook where private groups can be created. This forum also allows each person to upload pictures and other information about themselves creating a more personal, humanizing dimension to people who are otherwise perceived as distant and unconnected.
Building a Team Identity
A common feeling of identity is a vital part of taking your group from solitude to companionship. People have an inherent interest in feeling part of something special. During your initial assembly allow the team to work together in developing a distinctive individuality.
Once developed, use this identity on all project documents, presentations, team sites, and related materials; it will further strengthen the character of the group
Cohesive teams cannot be built without trust. Each member of the group needs to have full faith in the other members knowing each team members is skilled and dependable in his area of expertise. However, trust takes time to grow and mature; so how do you cultivate trust?
If you have implemented the recommendations above you have already taken great strides in laying the foundation for strong trusting relationships. To further nurture the process I have listed a couple ideas I have seen used successfully:
- Start a buddy system, a first source of information. Each team member is a assigned a buddy, preferably one who compliments the others skills and abilities, carefully chosen to be a mentor to one another. This unit relies on each other for answers to questions, advice and general commentary. When the group members utilize the expertise each offers, they understand the value of their counterparts in their roles and enhances their confidence in the group.
- Assign group projects. On a rotating basis pull together members of the team to complete goal related projects impelling them to work closely with one another gaining knowledge of the other team members capabilities and strengths.
- As a manager it knowing the strengths of your team gives you the ability to build the bench strength by delegating. By knowing the strengths of your team, when approached for assistance, you have the ability to ask them to utilize a particular team member who may be stronger than you in the particular area. Essentially you are assigning “go to” guys for particular areas where a member of your team is strong. Not only does this free some of your time, it is also an exercise in building bench strength and most of all it enhances team members confidence in one another.
- Injecting humor, at the expense of yourself helps to break down barriers and creates an understanding with your team you are regular person
- Willful collaboration among team members and sharing information to assist each other in achieving goals is a key attribute to encourage within a team.
As the trust expands through the group, the team members will start support the other members of the team and pick each other up if they start to tumble.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw
Communication amongst a virtual team enhances the fellowship of the group and should be made as easy as walking over to the water cooler. There are many possibilities to augment a virtual community:
- Shared virtual workspace.
- Online forum such as Facebook.
- SharePoint site to store team files.
- Instant messaging program.
- Weekly conference calls.
- Web Conferences.
- Virtual conference rooms.
- And believe it or not — the telephone!
Nothing is worse than working so hard to achieve greatness and no one ever finds out. It is important to celebrate the wins on a team and send a flag up the virtual flag pole staking your claim. As a leader it is your duty to communicate these wins to everyone who will listen and reward the members of your team for their accomplishments. Congratulatory compliments are a vital part of bonding people on a team. Make the announcements personal and call on the individual(s) responsible to “toot their own horn” in a group setting explaining what they did and how they did it.
One of the greatest challenges with a virtual team is the social solitude people feel outside of an office environment. To offset this seclusion you can coordinate activities which build identity, unity and a competitive spirit within your entire team.
- Hold an online poker tournament.
- Depending on the group, a combat game might be of interest.
- Host a Second Life event.
- Participate in a virtual team farming exercise.
There are many games and social events to take part in over the internet or through electronic gaming devices; pick something fitting of your team which allows them to accomplish a common goal.
Todays virtual environment can be taxing and as a leader you must work hard to unite your group. Personal bonding in a virtual environment is going to be challenging, but the more you can do to develop this connection between group members; the more productive they will be, greater motivation they will have, morale will increase , retention rates will be greater and you will have a strongly bonded team.
What are some methods you have seen used in a virtual workforce situation?
Jason Christensen is back in Chicago now working at Milwaukee Tools!
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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