Improving Collaboration in Virtual Teams

September 24, 2013

virtual collaboration

There are many opinions and perceptions about collaborating remotely or within a virtual team.  Many assume that collaboration decreases as the geographic distance between team members increases.  But is there any truth to this?  Do virtual teams have it harder than teams that are co-located?  The answer is yes.  Research has shown that virtual teams face more challenges than their face-to-face counterparts.

First, virtual teams communicate less effectively than face-to-face teams, even as they communicate more frequently.  As you may know, a greater volume of communication does not necessarily lead to better communication.  On the contrary, having more messages than your inbox can handle and being inundated with information can actually lead to more confusion, not less.

Second, conversations in virtual teams have been shown to be more task focused, to the exclusion of social interaction.  Although this effect lessens over time, intuitively it makes sense.  It takes a while to build and grow virtual relationships.  However, an extreme task focus may lead to less effective communication and weaken relational links between team members.   A lack of social communication is also associated with lower trust and cohesion in the team, along with difficulties in establishing a shared knowledge base.  Obviously, this can negatively impact team performance.

Fortunately for virtual team leaders, research also provides strategies on how to overcome these challenges.  These strategies fall into 2 major categories:

Increasing social identity within the team 

To increase engagement within remote or virtual teams we need to first think about social identity.  Social identity theory basically says that we all find ways to identify with various groups and the more we identify with a group, the more likely behave in a manner in line with the interests of the group, putting our own needs and desires aside.   Greater identification with a group can leads to greater trust and cohesion, better communication and cooperation, and ultimately better performance.

So how do we do that?

You may already be familiar with the stages of team development – forming, storming, norming, and performing.  Think about that first stage: forming.  How do you select people to become part of the team?  In some organizations I have worked with, leaders consciously select team members based on their experience and past performance working within a virtual team.  Having team members that are comfortable and adept at working virtually from the beginning can help the forming stage go smoothly.

Additionally, it may be helpful during the early stages of team formation for team members to meet face-to-face meetings before engaging virtually.  This can help foster higher trust, improved socialization, and closer interpersonal relationships.  (Of course this depends on logistics and budget).

Lastly, don’t forget to make time for social interaction.  To some, this may be seen as a waste of time.  Remember, if communication within the team becomes too task focused, it can eventually erode team performance.  Use ice breakers when the team first meets to start building relationships or reserve a little time during recurring team meetings to socialize and ensure people are comfortable around each other.

Leveraging the right technology

Technology also plays a big part in how virtual teams collaborate.  Communicating solely over email and conference calls can make collaboration difficult.  Thankfully, the tools and technology available are getting better and better.

High quality, affordable videoconferencing is accessible to all of us and can make a big difference in virtual teams.  In a study that compared how users collaborate virtually with or without video, users unsurprisingly wanted video.  Users believed that video added value to their interactions and made their interactions more satisfying.  If you are not already using video within your teams, you should start.

Also, there are a number of tools on the market that enable teams to collaborate, from meeting applications to document storage and content management to social networks.  All of these applications can enrich the team experience and allow for better communication and collaboration.  Too often I find teams not exploring or experimenting with new tools but complaining about how difficult it is to work on a virtual team.  Virtual team leaders can take advantage of what is available today.

In summary, virtual teams may have struggled in the past but it doesn’t have to be that way.  You may find with a little effort that the experience can be just as good, and in some cases better, than if you and your teammates were face to face.

Good luck,




Teleworkers Need Mentors Too

July 24, 2012

In the late 1970s, the Harvard Business Review released the results of a survey aimed at hundreds of senior executives.  One of the key findings of this survey was that their professional success would’ve never occurred if there wasn’t a mentor along the way to help them to the top.  What applied over 30 years ago to senior executives, applies today to teleworkers.  Good leaders mentor or find mentors for their teleworkers to optimize both their happiness and performance.

Teleworking or mobile working is not always easy both personally and professionally. Because college courses tend not to teach teleworking classes or management classes aimed at teleworkers, learning the ropes of effective teleworking can be difficult.  It is the mentors, the ones who’ve done it before, that fill in the learning gaps. It’s the mentors who answer the questions, who lend a helping hand, that offer encouragement, and provide comfort.  Teleworking is a lot like roaming into the frontier of the working world.  The early settlers didn’t pioneer the frontier alone.  They often traveled in groups or had a guide. As a leader, either guide or find a guide or mentor for your teleworkers.  Don’t force it upon them, but make a mentoring program visible and available for them to take advantage.



Behold, the Telework Champion!

June 26, 2012

 In the past I’ve written about the importance of identifying and managing stakeholders.  However, a key player in the deployment of telework, or any large cross-functional initiative for that matter, is the champion or executive sponsor.  Some champions are assigned sponsorship from higher management while others volunteer.  Regardless, you should know what the role of champion is, why it’s so important, and the responsibilities of a champion.

What does a telework champion do?  A champion’s main responsibilities can be described by the following 6 things:

  1. Communicate the Case.  Although the business case for telework may be a collective effort, the champion or sponsor is the chief evangelist or face of the initiative.  The champion should emphasize the risks of maintaining the status quo, highlight opportunities, paint a compelling picture of the future state, and link the initiative to the business strategy to make it relevant for the organization.
  2. Set Expectations.  Champions play a critical role in ensuring stakeholders are aligned and driving closure for any gaps in support.  The champion should reiterate the need to achieve the desired results and communicate the high level metrics that will be used to measure results.
  3. Lead by Example.  A good champion doesn’t let others simply opt out.  The champion leads the way by demonstrating desired behaviors.  When necessary, the champion makes visible sacrifices for initiative success and clearly shows that telework is a high priority.  Sponsorship is not delegated down to lower levels; the champion legitimizes the change through personal influence.
  4. Reward the Right Behavior.  The champion has the power to influence behavior by positively recognizing and rewarding desired behavior changes.  Communicating successes across the organization will also help create needed momentum.  Conversely, the champion can visibly provide consequences for behaviors that do not support the change.  
  5. Resolving Conflict.  As telework coordinators or program managers advocate and drive the move to the virtual office environment, challenges will always arise.  The champion is the person they go to for help, whether it is dealing with difficult stakeholders, clarity on organizational priorities, or resolving budgetary gaps.
  6. Mitigating Risk.  The champion should proactively understand how the initiative impacts other areas within the organization.  Risks should be identified and the champion should anticipate the disruption to organization in relation to the needed changes.  The champion can reach out to other organizational leaders to counter any resistance or work through challenges.

If you are currently a telework champion in your organization, ask yourself honestly if you can fulfill the requirements above.  If you are trying to drive telework in your organization, do you have the right champion?  As part of your deployment strategy, don’t overlook the importance of getting the right champion in place and ensuring adequate sponsorship.



Crafting Your Telework Adoption Strategy

May 29, 2012

In many cases, people assume that change management is synonymous with a communication strategy.  Although it should be part of your overall plan, changing organizational behavior goes far beyond communication.  To get your organization to adopt telework and realize the intended business value, you will need to develop a detailed telework adoption strategy.  As part of your strategy, you should consider the following elements: 

  1. Sponsorship:  In the beginning, don’t worry about who the sponsor will be.  Instead, first understand the role of the sponsor. In other words, what do you expect the sponsor to do?  Then assess who the sponsor(s) should be, the approach you may need to build the sponsorship needed, and the plan for sponsor engagement.
  2.  Roles & Responsibilities: Document the roles and responsibilities of all the members of the team that will help implement telework. 
  3. Business case & Metrics: Identify the compelling reason for why your organization needs to implement telework now.  Be sure to detail what the final state should look like.  Define the metrics you will use to measure success.  Metrics may include quantitative and qualitative measures and lagging and leading indicators.  For example,  participation rates (leading) and productivity gained (lagging).
  4. Pilots and quick-wins.  I’ve mentioned the importance of running a pilot in the past.  Identify potential quick wins or pilots up front to help create momentum. 
  5. Stakeholder Management: Identify and prioritize stakeholders, assess their level of support, identify barriers, and develop  and mitigation plans.  Create a plan for continued monitoring.
  6. Communication Plan:  Now you are ready for the communication planning.  Outline who (which groups or segments) you will need to communicate with and how to communicate most efficiently and effectively.
  7. Training: Identify skill or knowledge gaps that need to be addressed through training.
  8. Risk Assessment:  Assess and identify the biggest areas of risk to your implementation and what solutions you need to develop to overcome these challenges. 

The list above may not guarantee success, but you will at least have the odds in your favor.  Always keep in mind that altering the direction or overcoming organizational inertia in tough.  Therefore, your adoption plan is not something  that is a one-time exercise.  Someone should own the plan, keep it updated, and force the team to continually revisit it to make any course corrections.

Good luck!

– Jason


3 Key Questions for Implementing Change

May 8, 2012

Whenever an organization implements telework, flexible work options or any alternative work structure, it always involves a significant amount of change.  Before attempting to change the organizational culture or change how your team thinks about certain ideas, ask yourself these 3 key questions:

  1. What behaviors need to change?
  2. Who will need to change?
  3. What will help them make these changes?

The questions seem fairly simple, but they will help you keep your focus before developing any detailed change management plan.

An important note: for the third question, be sure to consider the things in the organization that are countering any behaviors you are trying to encourage.  For example, a company I knew purchased expensive video conferencing systems and wanted employees to start using it.  However, the company had a very open travel policy, allowing employees to travel across the country for whatever need, even if it was only for an hour meeting.  Why would employees flock to use video conferencing when they could always go and meet in person.  A policy change was needed to help encourage the desired behavior.

– Jason

Forget the Millennials. Why I’m Betting on Generation Z.

May 1, 2012

Dear Generation Y,

A lot has been written and said about you.  A lot of it has been unflattering.  People, older people, have said your generation is predominately lazy, lacks work ethic and cares more about immediate gratification than achieving long-term goals.  They say that you’re a market mercenary and will switch jobs when the wind blows in a different direction.  There are entire management seminars completely dedicated to teaching people how to manage you.  Do you believe that?  Sure, you never knew what a VHS tape was, the Cold War was something you read about in history class, and the Internet always existed.  But, who cares?  Let me share a little secret: they said the same thing about Generation X almost 20 years ago.  You see, it’s fun to bash the younger kids on the block.  You wouldn’t expect older workers to say you’re better than them, do you? 

Regardless, I’m over you.  No, there’s nothing wrong with you.  It’s not you, it’s me.  I hate to say this, but you’re just too old for me.  You’re over the hill.  Old school already.  You’ve lost your shine.  I’m now going with workers younger than you, the next generation, Generation Z.          

My children are part of this up and coming generation.  As I watch them grow I am equally scared and excited for them.  It’s amazing what they have access to and what they can do.  My 9-year old has her own tablet (thanks to my mother-in-law).  I don’t have a tablet.  And worse, my kid doesn’t share hers with me.  I am constantly searching for my iPhone because my 7-year old son prefers to watch YouTube videos on it versus watching the Nickelodeon channel.  My son is learning to spell words by what he needs to type into the search window.  When both my kids come home from school, they have to get online to finish their homework.  For take-your-kid-to-work day last week, I let my kids stay home from school.

Consider some stats from author Tammy Erickson on a recent HBR blog:

  • Two-thirds of 4- to 7-year-olds have used an iPhone or iPod
  • 6% of 2- to 5-year-olds have their own smartphone;  50% of 11 year olds have own cell phone
  • The average teen sends more than 50 texts a day
  • Over 25% of 2-5 year olds and over 40% of 6-8 year olds use the Internet
  • The amount of time all kids spend online daily has tripled in the past 10 years

I am already preparing my responses to questions I’m sure they will ask when they grow up.  My answers will be something like:

“Yes, that’s a game console.  In my day, you used that to play video games.  And yes, it needed those wires hooked into the box.”

“Well, we used something called Facebook.  It was quite popular for a while.”

“That’s an office cubicle. Believe it or not, people actually liked working in those.”

“Grandpa was referring to something called a mainframe.  There was no cloud back then.  Punch cards?  No, I have no idea what Grandpa was talking about.” 

You get the point. 

We are breeding virtual workers without realizing it.  The workplace is still in transition from the traditional to virtual environment and Generation Y is living through this uncomfortable change.  The following generation will have it a bit easier.  The workplace will already be mobile, flexible, virtual and global by the time they enter it.  Leaders today, regardless of what generation they are from, should try to get ahead of the curve, or at least embrace the coming changes.  Evolution is inevitable, but as quality guru Edwards Deming used to say, survival is not mandatory.  In the meantime, Gen Y, you can start prepping your snarky comments for Generation Z.  You’ll eventually get to pick on the new guys.  


Establish Guiding Principles for Your Virtual Team

April 17, 2012

Years ago when I was an office-bound employee, I sat through an HR facilitated session when my team and I were welcoming a new boss.  The facilitator would ask the manager about his work style, how he preferred to receive certain types of information, or his expectations of each team member.  I found the whole thing a little hokey.  However, as years passed I realized the benefits of establishing expectations with employees or at least establishing some guiding principles or norms that should guide team behavior.  Many telework arrangements tend be high-level and leave employees wondering about some of the specific work behaviors or practices that are acceptable in the virtual environment.  You can help clarify this by having a team discussion to collectively agree on how the team should work.  (By the way, this works for any virtual team, temporary or permanent, and not just for organizations implementing telework.)

Below is a list of questions you can review with your team.  It’s certainly not all inclusive, but it should help get you started.

  • What is the preferred method of communication?
  • What events or activities is it critical for the team to meet live?  In person?
  • Is there any preferred virtual meeting etiquette that should be followed?
  • What things are best communicated via live meetings versus email versus discussion boards versus instant messaging?
  • How fast should someone provide a response to an email?
  • Are there “normal working hours” when everyone on the team is expected to be available/accessible?
  • Is it okay to contact someone by cell phone?  Home phone?  Any restrictions?
  • Do you require virtual team members to be on video/webcam?
  • What, if any, is the dress code for virtual team members?
  • What is the preferred method to escalate issues or resolve conflict?
  • What are your virtual pet peeves?
  • What things or behaviors are off limits or unacceptable?    

Obviously, there is no right or wrong answer.  It’s all team dependent.  The value of this exercise is getting everyone on the same page to avoid problems down the road. 

Got a guiding principle of your own?  Let me know!

Good luck,