By Beth O’Neill, Senior Consultant, Interaction Associates
Does the following scenario sound familiar? Rich is leading a Product Development team with members in Salt Lake City, New York, Zurich, and Hong Kong. To help focus the team and set goals, he convenes an online Web meeting. Most team members are joining via the Web and on the phone—except for Rich and three colleagues, who are in the same room in the New York office.
As Rich proceeds through his PowerPoint deck, Sandra in Salt Lake City begins sending e-mails to her assistant on an urgent matter. Lee in Hong Kong wants to get Rich’s attention to ask a question, but gives up when Rich moves to another topic. Julia (sitting next to Rich in New York) whispers a witty comment, causing Werner in Zurich to wonder why everyone in New York suddenly burst out laughing.
By the end of the meeting, no one is sure what decisions have been made, or who is making them—and the online participants feel left out, to say the least.
This scenario points to a growing fact of life in business today: Leading virtual teams presents tough challenges, even with all the technological innovations available. The latest tools—many of which are amazing—instantly can connect people across the globe, but dispersed teams still face a huge hurdle to success: building and sustaining effective working relationships.
The pressures on team leaders are enormous—and the factors affecting team effectiveness are multiplying left and right. Time zones; different work processes; and competing perspectives, outlooks, and beliefs all get in the way. Team members are expected to share information, examine problems or opportunities, make decisions, and perhaps most challenging, extend the benefit of the doubt, having never laid eyes on one another. Leaders need to bridge the gaps fast and effectively by fostering an atmosphere that encourages strong relationships
People have basic needs when they work collaboratively—whether it’s across the room or across the miles. In his landmark study, theorist and researcher Will Schutz identified three basic needs of team members, including:
And where do those needs play out most commonly? In meetings—the tried-and-true means for teams to make progress and drive results. Team leaders are wise to explore how best to set the right conditions for success and strong results in all kinds of meetings. Team performance is at stake, at minimum, but so is the opportunity for a positive ripple effect throughout an organization: higher levels of productivity, employee involvement, and satisfaction.
How best to improve working relationships when leading virtual teams? Here are five priorities to pursue now:
With the rush of new technologies and a more global workforce at many companies, we are headed for more and more virtual work—which means more virtual meetings and remote collaboration challenges. Keeping your relationship skills honed and team member needs top of mind will help make your virtual meetings successful and productive.
Beth O’Neill is a senior consultant specializing in leading virtual teams at Interaction Associates, a 40-year old firm that helps clients build collaborative leadership capabilities on a global scale.