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.