Virtual Teams with Claire Sookman and Tom Schulte

How can you create more effective virtual teams?  I asked Claire Sookman of Virtual Team Builders, who has been studying and teaching virtual teams for ten years, and Tom Schulte of Recalibrate Professional Development, and the creator of the virtual team at the heart of Linked 2 Leadership.

A Virtual Team by definition is “a team in which the members are geographically dispersed and use technology to connect.”

So, in practice, a virtual team is one in which the team members are located more than 90 feet apart.

Why 90 feet?  Because it’s about the distance at which we stop using face-to-face communications tools and styles, and start using e-mail, instant messages, and so on.
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Compare your own experience with two colleagues, one of whom worked a few cubicles away and the other of whom worked on a different floor.  How will you communicate with them?  Most of us will wander over and talk face to face with their neighbor, and will not casually walk — several times a day — to the other floor.  So with one we have face-to-face time, and with the other we will use tools like email, phone calls, voice mail, instant messaging, text messaging, and so on.

As MIT’s Tom Allen found, the threshold where we switch communication tools and styles is around 90 feet.

What should a manager do first?  Claire recommends getting an assessment — many experts in her field will offer a free team assessment to a qualified manager.

Claire did an assessment recently for a new virtual team — interviewed 22 people — and quickly found this particular team had three problems:

  • How to Build Camaraderie
  • How to Tell if People are Working
  • How to Run More Effective Meetings

Generally you’ll start with a survey, followed by virtual meetings 1:1 with team members to drill into the revealed issues.

What are some ways to run better virtual team meetings?

  • Don’t use Meetings to Report Status
  • Use Meetings to Make Decisions and Share Ideas
  • When Possible, do NOT have People on Mute
  • Call the Behavior
Don’t use Meetings to Report Status
Distribute the status updates in advance and establish the expectation that everyone will read them in advance and start the call ready to discuss them.  A virtual meeting that includes status updates will be dull and unengaging — it’s a poor use of everyone’s time and that invites people to tune out.
Use Meetings to Make Decisions and Share Ideas
A key to good virtual meetings is to have everyone be engaged — so devote the meeting to engaging things like decision-making and idea sharing.  When they are engaged, people won’t multi-task and won’t be listening with only half an ear.
When Possible, do NOT have People on Mute
While it’s not always practical, have a default that the group will all keep their microphones un-muted — this encourages conversation and a higher level of engagement.  Listen carefully to ensure everyone participates and is heard.
Call the Behavior
Don’t put up with extended silence from particular people (“lurking”) — when you get silence from a particular person, call out that behavior.  Say “I’m hearing silence from Jim.  Jim, what’s going on for you?  Does your silence indicate something in particular?”  It’s important not to project an interpretation onto Jim — let Jim tell the group what his silence indicates.
Linked 2 Leadership
Tom Schulte has created a network of 14,000 leadership professionals on LinkedIn and on the Linked 2 Leadership web site.
Tom’s found a lot of value in using techniques like Claire’s as he has built and managed the site and the network of members.  His tried-and-true lessons include:
  • Use a Respectful Tone
  • Take the Other Person’s Perspective
  • Create Good Documentation
In the case of taking the other person’s perspective, when you can do that, you’re building trust with the other person — and trust is a huge issue with virtual teams.
How to Build Trust
Claire says, to build trust on your virtual team, respect their humanity — so you can open your meetings with personal news.  You can ask each member to share something about their own idiosyncrasies around working remotely that the rest of us should know about — maybe one person feels isolated when working from home and would value a higher level of connection with the other team members.
Another trust builder is to create a shared set of ground rules for the team.  The activity of crafting those rules will create buy-in, and will also establish the shared meaning of the words.  The team members then become much more willing to hold each other accountable to following those rules.  Explicit rules about team behavior are good — on virtual teams they are all but indispensable.
Such a rule might be “when meetings start, we will allow no interruptions.”  And we would have a shared understanding of what ‘interruptions’ are.  That would include no texting, no sending emails, and no multi-tasking.
Claire emphasized: the team itself must create the ground rules for communication, otherwise the members will not buy in.
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