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How Do We Get People to Accept Working Apart?

How do I help my managers overcome the idea that people have to work in physical proximity to each other to be productive? They insist that most jobs require close exchange of information and collaboration.

—Trapped in the Past, senior vice president of human resources, nonprofit, Baltimore

August 18, 2014
Related Topics: Work/Life Balance, The Latest, Dear Workforce, Workplace Culture

Dear Trapped:

As a CEO whose employees are spread out across the globe, I am perhaps hyper-aware of the advantages and difficulties posed by virtual teams. On the one hand, you have the benefit of being able to involve on your teams the most appropriate people, regardless of location. On the other hand, remote teams can be difficult to form and maintain. Without effective collaborative systems, they may fail to deliver as promised, or simply fail.

Leading a virtual team requires a strong and varied skill set, but the success of any kind of team relies on a fine balance of three elements: results, processes and relationship. Results are the outputs of the team, and typically, they are what the company measures. But it’s important to keep in mind that a leader’s attention to process and relationship concerns are bound to have an enormous effect on the team’s ultimate results.

In terms of team members’ satisfaction, I look at it this way: results concern the desire to strive for an outcome or accomplish a task. Processes points to the human need for predictability and influence. Relationships underscore the need for rapport: How we’re treated, and the extent to which we feel valued, fully participating and safe. Successful team leaders act in ways that meet all three satisfaction needs, and their teams’ productivity levels will be admirable. When the three are out of balance, however, team performance plummets.

The virtual team leader can’t rely on building rapport in hallway conversations with team members, nor can he or she use typical in-person visual cues like a smile, a nod or a pat on the back. Virtual team leaders can best build relationships and create a healthy process during virtual team meetings. In fact, the most powerful way to address virtual team effectiveness is in the team’s meeting.

Here are a few key strategies you can use to improve your virtual team interaction success:

1. Provide clear desired outcomes, and review these at the beginning of your team meeting.While this may seem obvious, I’ve seen meetings go adrift because they lack this essential anchor to a purpose. Your desired outcomes should answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” For team members, set a clear goal for the meeting and help everyone understand if we achieved our goal when the meeting is finished. This creates a sense of accomplishment. As an aside, it’s also a great way for the meeting’s leader to determine if a meeting is even necessary to begin with.

2. Give everyone a role.Too often meeting leaders try to do everything themselves. Assign someone else to record, facilitate and keep time. Giving team members active roles in the meeting helps the meeting stay on track. Even more important, it keeps everyone engaged and invested.  

3. Make relationship-building part of the agenda.We create a common culture as a result of each team interaction. So, use a variety of techniques to build relationships and develop a positive, collaborative culture. Keep it fresh and interesting. Mix it up. You must plan for relationship building; otherwise it gets subsumed into tasks. You don’t want the relationship among team members to become just another task. Let the group come up with ideas so it’s not just something being imposed by the leader.

SOURCE: Linda Stewart, Interaction Associates, Boston.


 The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

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