Communication risks within and around a Virtual Team

By Darren Rizza, CIO, Space Matrix

With 10.3 million YouTube views and counting, "A Conference Call in Real Life" depicts a comical view of every possible misfortune of the telephone conference call from arriving first and waiting for others to join, being on mute while speaking, joiners not having the right access code. You know the silliness and resulting frustration and time wasting that happens. But we persist. The same situational hazards exist for video conferences as access codes, hardware glitches and with video, all the extras of having too much Visual Background activity.

For today's teams, increasing virtual teams of remote workers, this is the way businesses get
Work done and technology makes it possible. But is that all it takes for virtual teams to be successful?
A 2009 RW3 survey and report of 30,000 employees from multinational companies found that 46 percent of employees working on virtual teams had never met their fellow team members and only 30 percent had met them once per year. And, of all the challenges explored in the report, technology was the lowest hurdle at 43 percent.

True success for virtual teams is built on social and interpersonal skills. Virtual team leaders and members need to proactively create activities and plan time that supports traditional in person meeting dynamics for their virtual meeting spaces. These traditional in-person dynamics include:

• Nonverbal cues
• Relationships
• Trust
• Rapport
• Conflict
• Decision making and
• Expressing opinions.

When employees are located in the same physical office or have greater access to being together in person, they are more able to develop a social relationship with their peers, able to better understand language. In addition, the nonverbal cues are so important for teams which help build trust and understanding, camaraderie and rapport.

When teams are virtual, team leaders and members must plan more than just the meeting times and agendas to ‘do the work’, they must also build various social meetings and social media to help foster those ‘in-person’ relationships. Using the same virtual meeting technology and other business collaboration tools, various engagements can be set up:

• Monthly virtual lunches or weekly virtual coffee breaks to help build rapport 
• Online chats / instant messaging for more real-time feel to conversations
• Online employee profiles to help build and share a whole picture of employees including their experience, personal interests, and pictures of their office or home office space. As well, the virtual work meetings, similar to in person meetings, need a good set of ground rules to encourage equal participation from all team members.
• Multitasking should be banned, each team member needs to be focused on the meeting and conversation.
• Speak slowly. Don't interrupt.
• Listen to understand.
• Speak as though remote participants are in the room.
• Team leaders need to be the emcee and drive participation.
• Meeting agendas are important and should be distributed ahead meeting notes written or recorded should be maintained and shared.
• Be aware of each team members time zone and find convenient overlaps; Share the burden of staying up late or waking up early so that each feels equal in their participation.
• Team calendars should be shared and each should be sure their availability is clearly published so others know when it is good to reach out for questions, follow-up or understand if a response may be delayed. Our virtual team members cannot stop by our desk and see if we are available. Our calendars and our daily communication tools email, chat status etc are the virtual equivalents.
Todays and upcoming technologies offer more social and collaboration opportunities. Tools like WorkLife- a web and mobile app that help you run highly productive, engaging meetings online and on the go, Sqwiggle and WorkingOn have made in-person meeting processes and activities fun and digital, eliminating distance between remote workers.

The technology of the conference call from twenty years ago set the stage for virtual teams.

Depersonalized teams removed a lot of the goodness of in person meetings. As our businesses and employees become digital with new social technologies, new apps and online tools are helping virtual teams and people become successful through decreasing or removing distance and distraction, while increasing those critical social and interpersonal skills. However, regardless of technology advances, people will continue to be the reason teams virtual or in-person are successful. Teamwork is just that, work.

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