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Build Real Teamwork in a Virtual Team

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If your virtual team is spread far and wide, how can you help them to be a real team?

 

Editor's Note: This article is an excerpt from Managing Without Walls, published by MC Press.

 

Virtual teams are a growing phenomenon in today's business world. It is becoming more and more unusual to find an organization that doesn't have some virtual aspect to it. Sales teams have been virtual for decades. They just didn't have such a fancy title! Today, organizations have more than sales teams scattered around the country or the globe; virtual teams exist in practically every part of the organization. IT isn't immune from this movement. With the advent of newer and more mobile technology, virtual IT teams are becoming increasingly commonplace.

One of the challenges to effective management of virtual teams is the ability to build real teamwork. Teamwork is what transforms a group of individuals working independently to achieve their own goals into a team working collaboratively to achieve the team's goals. The team manager is the glue that holds the team together, the common link between the individual members of the team, the nucleus around which the team revolves. If you are a manager of such a team, you must drive the effort to build strong and collaborative teamwork.

Understanding the Dynamics of the Team

The dynamics of the team are created by the unique combination of personalities, interaction styles, learning styles, communication styles, and personal and business cultural backgrounds of the team members. The most influential contributor to the team dynamic is the team manager.

 

The team manager molds, shapes, directs, and guides the team. As the team members build trust and rapport with each other and start to share experiences and opinions, the personality of the team will emerge. The personality of the team determines its internal dynamics. If one team member leaves or a new team member joins, the team dynamics will change.

 

The dynamics are affected by attitudes. If the team is positive and enthusiastic, the dynamics will reflect this. If the team is negative and inflexible, this will be obvious in the way the team members interact with one another and with others outside of the team. The manager is the person who creates the team attitude. It doesn't just happen accidentally. Outside forces can create problems such as unease and uncertainty that will affect the attitude of team members, but a strong virtual manager will protect the team members from as much of this outside influence as possible. The manager is the umbrella that protects the team from all the things coming down from above. If the umbrella is doing its job, the team will hardly be aware that it has been raining for the past week!

 

If the team is a permanent one whose members have been working together for a long time, the dynamics might be quite complex. For temporary teams whose members have been together for a short time, the dynamics will be more simple.

Creating the Virtual Community

As a team spends more time working and interacting together, the emergence of a virtual community is a natural progression. Most people are part of one or more virtual communities, even if they are not working in a virtual environment. Virtual communities are created from the use of email, instant messaging, phone calls, Web sites, and any other types of communication or information-sharing that are not face-to-face. Leaving notes for other family members at home is virtual communication, as is sending jokes via email to your parents or siblings.

 

A successful virtual team community needs to be able to function and thrive without the continual input and supervision of its manager. This does not mean that the team does not need a manager--it certainly does. It means that the team members can interact, make decisions, and deal with problems together so that not all of the communication needs the involvement of the manager. The virtual community might well include employees who are not assigned to the same team but who have some common interest in some aspects of the team or a specific project.

 

Ideally, the virtual team members will have a place where they can interact with other members of the community. Virtual rooms, online bulletin boards, instant messaging, and phone conferencing are all great tools for facilitating community interaction.

 

A sense of community comes from a sense of belonging. The team belongs together because it is a team, but what makes its members a community is the way they feel about each other, the sense of duty and responsibility they have toward each other. For example, if one team member is involved in an accident, the other team members will be truly concerned about his or her welfare. If the only concern is about who will do that person's work and how the team will meet its deadline next week, there is no community.

 

It is impossible to create a sense of belonging without being inclusive. Being inclusive means not leaving people out of the activity, the fun, or the joke. If you have ever been around a group of people who started to speak to one another in a language that you do not understand, you know how it feels to be excluded. If there is only one person who does not understand the conversation, that person will feel isolated and uncomfortable. The worst thing is when everyone starts laughing, and the single person being excluded from the conversation doesn't know what's funny. That person is probably trying to figure out how to make an escape as fast as possible! This same feeling of isolation and embarrassment is present in any situation where someone feels excluded.

 

If some members of the team have worked together in the past and spend all their time talking about the "old days" and ignoring the newer members of the team, those newer members are going to start to feel left out. If the manager also behaves in an exclusive way, the problem will be exacerbated. You can talk about situations and experiences that others were not involved in and still be inclusive. If the situation is told as a story, it can be enjoyed by everyone. If it is a funny story, everyone can have a laugh about it, rather than just the people who were there at the time.

 

One team member who feels isolated from the rest can change the dynamics on the team considerably. Someone who feels left out will gravitate toward others who feel the same way. By doing this, the excluded team members find somewhere to belong. They find friendship and camaraderie with the other "outsiders." Unfortunately, these actions are driven by envy, frustration, and revenge. Before you know it, you have two or more factions on your team plotting against each other. That's not a positive foundation on which to build a highly productive and supportive team!

 

It is not difficult to feel isolated when working virtually. If you spend a lot of time alone, you will inevitably feel lonely from time to time. Perhaps you will even feel a little envious of those team members who get to travel and interact with each other more than you do. Allowing and even encouraging team members to interact with each other about non-work-related things will enhance the sense of community on your team. Shared activities, such as online video games or puzzles, are a great way of bringing the team together without them having to be together. You could run team competitions and bring the team together on a virtual team day to discuss the entries and maybe vote on the winners. Introducing a fun and frivolous element into some of the team interactions will help to solidify the feeling of being part of a virtual community.

Creating Trust

One important issue for virtual teams is the issue of trust. Because team members don't see each other on a daily basis, trust doesn't come naturally. You cannot demand trust from your team members, nor can they demand it from you. Trust and respect have to be earned, and they must be earned honestly! The virtual team needs to have trust and confidence in itself and its manager. Creating and maintaining trust creates a positive working environment for everyone on the team.

To create an environment where trust can thrive, every member of the team needs to feel valued and appreciated. Each team member should feel comfortable speaking openly and honestly about issues, both with management and with other team members. Each team member should feel that he or she is entitled to have an opinion and that the opinion will be listened to and taken into consideration. This does not mean that you have to agree with every opinion; it means that each team member has a voice and has equal rights to be heard and to contribute to discussions.

 

Speaking openly and expressing opinions does not mean that team members have carte blanche to say whatever they please to whomever they please. The manager must ensure that communication among team members is respectful at all times. Rules need to be in place about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable behavior and communication. If a team member has a very strong opposition to something that has been said or done, he or she is entitled to express an opinion. He or she is not entitled to make personal attacks or personal comments about anyone else.

 

Team members need to trust that you will follow through on what you say you will do. If you are unreliable or unsupportive, your team members will not feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and opinions with you. You should be honest about your own thoughts and feelings. If you do not agree with someone, you should tell the person (politely) that you do not agree. If you tell one person one thing and another something different, how will anybody know what is true? You must be consistent in your messaging and not keep changing your mind or telling people different things. It makes you appear unreliable and untrustworthy. It is also important that you hold team members responsible for their commitments and their actions. If a team member commits to doing something, hold him or her to that commitment.

The Pitfall of Isolation

When working virtually, it is easy to forget you are part of a team. You get into a groove with the work you need to accomplish and, by applying focus and discipline, you can complete the work on time and maybe even a little ahead of schedule. Each team meeting or phone call is a distraction from getting your tasks completed. After a while, it is easy to just stop calling in for meetings and to not answer the phone if you can help it. As time goes by, people invite you to participate in fewer and fewer meetings, and you become almost a non-entity on the team.

 

If one of your team members has been behaving in this way, what has he accomplished? Perhaps he would say he gets more work done. He might think he is more productive because his work is always completed on time. Is this really true? If he is not participating in the team, then he is not completing all his assigned work. If he has no idea what is going on in his virtual community, how does he know his contributions are valuable? Is he working on the highest priority tasks or the things that were the highest priority six months ago, when he last called in a for a meeting? If the team can function with hardly any input from this team member, why do you need him? If you hired this person for his knowledge, skills, and experience, what good are those things if the team is not getting any input from him? It could be that the position would be better served by someone else.

 

If you have a team member who is beginning to skip meetings and not answer the phone, you need to deal with the situation quickly, before he or she becomes isolated from the team. Make sure you implement a process by which team members communicate that they are unable to attend a meeting, and that process must include stating the reason for non-attendance. It is simple courtesy to let the meeting organizer know if you are unable to attend. If you notice a team member skipping meetings frequently with no apparent reason, speak to that person. Explain that his or her primary role is to be a team member and to play a participative role on the team. If he or she is finding it hard to complete assigned tasks on time due to meetings, phone calls, or other interruptions, work with the team member on prioritizing tasks to use time most efficiently.

 

Let all team members know that being part of the team is part of the job. Working virtually is not the same as setting up a sole proprietorship and working for yourself. Being a virtual employee means you are working together, apart; it does not mean you are working alone.

Colleen Garton

Colleen Garton is a highly respected and experienced writer, consultant, and speaker. She is the author of two management books: Fundamentals of Technology Project Management and Managing Without Walls. Recognized internationally as an expert on virtual and global management, Colleen is an experienced and in-demand public speaker for numerous events and conferences around the world. She is also author of the blog Working With or Without Walls.

 Colleen has extensive management and training experience in the United States and internationally, with more than two decades of practical experience in traditional and virtual management spanning multiple industries. She is the owner of the Garton Consulting Group. Before founding the Garton Consulting Group, Ms. Garton held senior management positions at some major U.S. corporations.

You can follow Colleen on Twitter at @ColleenGarton and on Facebook.


MC Press books written by Colleen Garton available now on the MC Press Bookstore.

Fundamentals of Technology Project Management Fundamentals of Technology Project Management
Master the specific project management issues that technology professionals must face.
List Price $69.95

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Managing Without Walls Managing Without Walls
Optimize the effectiveness of your teams...no matter where they are.
List Price $37.95

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    SB PowerTech WC GenericA growing number of compliance mandates require sensitive data to be encrypted. But what kind of encryption solution will satisfy an auditor and how can you implement encryption on IBM i? Watch this on-demand webinar to find out how to meet today’s most common encryption requirements on IBM i. You’ll also learn:

    • Why disk encryption isn’t enough
    • What sets strong encryption apart from other solutions
    • Important considerations before implementing encryption

     

     

  • Security Bulletin: Malware Infection Discovered on IBM i Server!

    SB PowerTech WC GenericMalicious programs can bring entire businesses to their knees—and IBM i shops are not immune. It’s critical to grasp the true impact malware can have on IBM i and the network that connects to it. Attend this webinar to gain a thorough understanding of the relationships between:

    • Viruses, native objects, and the integrated file system (IFS)
    • Power Systems and Windows-based viruses and malware
    • PC-based anti-virus scanning versus native IBM i scanning

    There are a number of ways you can minimize your exposure to viruses. IBM i security expert Sandi Moore explains the facts, including how to ensure you're fully protected and compliant with regulations such as PCI.

     

     

  • Fight Cyber Threats with IBM i Encryption

    SB PowerTech WC GenericCyber attacks often target mission-critical servers, and those attack strategies are constantly changing. To stay on top of these threats, your cybersecurity strategies must evolve, too. In this session, IBM i security expert Robin Tatam provides a quick recap of IBM i security basics and guides you through some advanced cybersecurity techniques that can help you take data protection to the next level. Robin will cover:

    • Reducing the risk posed by special authorities
    • Establishing object-level security
    • Overseeing user actions and data access

     

     

     

  • 10 Practical IBM i Security Tips for Surviving Covid-19 and Working From Home

    SB PowerTech WC GenericNow that many organizations have moved to a work from home model, security concerns have risen.

    During this session Carol Woodbury will discuss the issues that the world is currently seeing such as increased malware attacks and then provide practical actions you can take to both monitor and protect your IBM i during this challenging time.

     

  • How to Transfer IBM i Data to Microsoft Excel

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_Generic3 easy ways to get IBM i data into Excel every time
    There’s an easy, more reliable way to import your IBM i data to Excel? It’s called Sequel. During this webinar, our data access experts demonstrate how you can simplify the process of getting data from multiple sources—including Db2 for i—into Excel. Watch to learn how to:

    • Download your IBM i data to Excel in a single step
    • Deliver data to business users in Excel via email or a scheduled job
    • Access IBM i data directly using the Excel add-in in Sequel

    Make 2020 the year you finally see your data clearly, quickly, and securely. Start by giving business users the ability to access crucial business data from IBM i the way they want it—in Microsoft Excel.

     

     

  • HA Alternatives: MIMIX Is Not Your Only Option on IBM i

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_GenericIn this recorded webinar, our experts introduce you to the new HA transition technology available with our Robot HA software. You’ll learn how to:

    • Transition your rules from MIMIX (if you’re happy with them)
    • Simplify your day-to-day activities around high availability
    • Gain back time in your work week
    • Make your CEO happy about reducing IT costs

    Don’t stick with a legacy high availability solution that makes you uncomfortable when transitioning to something better can be simple, safe, and cost-effective.

     

     

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  • Backup and Recovery on IBM i: Your Strategy for the Unexpected

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Robot automates the routine tasks of iSeries backup and recovery, saving you time and money and making the process safer and more reliable. Automate your backups with the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution. Key features include:
    - Simplified backup procedures
    - Easy data encryption
    - Save media management
    - Guided restoration
    - Seamless product integration
    Make sure your data survives when catastrophe hits. Try the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Manage IBM i Messages by Exception with Robot

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Managing messages on your IBM i can be more than a full-time job if you have to do it manually. How can you be sure you won’t miss important system events?
    Automate your message center with the Robot Message Management Solution. Key features include:
    - Automated message management
    - Tailored notifications and automatic escalation
    - System-wide control of your IBM i partitions
    - Two-way system notifications from your mobile device
    - Seamless product integration
    Try the Robot Message Management Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Easiest Way to Save Money? Stop Printing IBM i Reports

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Robot automates report bursting, distribution, bundling, and archiving, and offers secure, selective online report viewing.
    Manage your reports with the Robot Report Management Solution. Key features include:

    - Automated report distribution
    - View online without delay
    - Browser interface to make notes
    - Custom retention capabilities
    - Seamless product integration
    Rerun another report? Never again. Try the Robot Report Management Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Hassle-Free IBM i Operations around the Clock

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413For over 30 years, Robot has been a leader in systems management for IBM i.
    Manage your job schedule with the Robot Job Scheduling Solution. Key features include:
    - Automated batch, interactive, and cross-platform scheduling
    - Event-driven dependency processing
    - Centralized monitoring and reporting
    - Audit log and ready-to-use reports
    - Seamless product integration
    Scale your software, not your staff. Try the Robot Job Scheduling Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • ACO MONITOR Manages your IBM i 24/7 and Notifies You When Your IBM i Needs Assistance!

    SB DDL Systems 5429More than a paging system - ACO MONITOR is a complete systems management solution for your Power Systems running IBM i. ACO MONITOR manages your Power System 24/7, uses advanced technology (like two-way messaging) to notify on-duty support personnel, and responds to complex problems before they reach critical status.

    ACO MONITOR is proven technology and is capable of processing thousands of mission-critical events daily. The software is pre-configured, easy to install, scalable, and greatly improves data center efficiency.