The idea of having a virtual team to support a solo/small business is becoming more common and accepted these days.
These virtual teams are frequently set up to address specific business needs and offer several benefits including flexibility and job satisfaction which can lead to higher productivity. However, many companies fail to build meaningful relationships with virtual teammates because they manage their virtual teams the same way they manage their co-located teams.
In order to build cohesive team relationships when you have a virtual team, it’s essential to focus on all aspects of people management: effective communication through social interaction, working collaboratively, and building trust.
1. Focus on people
One of the challenges with building relationships with virtual teammates is a lack of human contact which can lead to an increase in ‘people issues’. These issues may include an ‘us vs them’ mentality between locations or groups, depletion in team spirit, inefficiencies in trust, and a reduction in overall productivity.
Some effective ways to compensate for this lack of personal contact and to minimise people issues include:
- Utilising real-time communications like Slack to allow team members to communicate spontaneously;
- Developing a team portal for information sharing and discussion forums (depending on team size);
- Sending regular team emails and newsletters which include business updates and team successes; and
- Partnering team members on different projects and rotate these periodically to encourage collaborative working relationships.
2. Effective communication
Virtual communication can lead to misinterpretation of messages and misconceptions between team members. It is important to ensure communication remains clear, consistent, honest and open to avoid misunderstandings and to increase cohesive relationships within virtual teams.
Developing a communications plan that schedules regular and consistent meetings is a way of ensuring all team members are on the same schedule. The schedule should be considerate of team members in different time zones, so allocating different meetings at different times to suit all time zones is important.
In addition, the ability to effectively communicate with virtual teammates is heavily reliant on the technology used. Communication technologies should be chosen based on the specific task. For example, email or messaging apps are good for simple communication, while video conferencing is better suited for interactive sharing of ideas or plans.
Instant messaging and social media allows team members to communicate spontaneously and can act as a virtual ‘water cooler’. Using tools such as portals assist to create sense of shared space.
To build meaningful relationships across virtual communications, there are important rules to follow:
- Respond to requests promptly;
- Limit any background noise during telephone or video conferencing;
- Listen attentively and do not dominate or interrupt other speakers;
- Determine which communication modes to use for what circumstance;
- Be sensitive to other team members’ time zones; and
- Learn good cross-cultural communication skills where appropriate.
A critical part of any relationship is trust. In an office with personal contact, colleagues build relationships and trust through social interaction and collaborative work. This is referred to as interpersonal trust.
Virtual teammates build trust through reliability, consistency, and responsiveness. This is referred to as task-based trust.
Implementing and maintaining these behaviours consistently is important when building relationships with virtual teammates, and can be achieved by:
- Ensuring the team meets face-to-face via video chat at least once when the team is being formed or new members join.
- Ensuring the commitment is followed through on when a deadline is agreed to, or a commitment made (this demonstrates reliability).
- Responding in a timely manner to all communications. (A quick response will demonstrate both responsiveness and accessibility.)
If you’re willing to adjust your management and communication style then building meaningful and long-lasting relationships virtually is very do-able. Follow the aforementioned tips and not only will you build great relationships, but you’ll also increase happiness and productivity within your team!
Do you have virtual team members? Please comment with any suggestions or tips you’ve come across to build camaraderie, relationships and motivation!