Five Principles for Building Virtual Teams

Raytheon’s in-house creative-services team, Advanced Media, consists of over 120 design professionals working from several different cities across the United States. We’re involved in the company’s proposal efforts, marketing campaigns, facility branding, employee and customer meetings, and internal culture-change initiatives.

Advanced Media was formed two years ago when creative teams throughout Raytheon’s businesses were brought together under common leadership within the company’s shared-services organization, with the leadership located in Boston, Dallas, Tucson and Los Angeles. Because we’re not all located in the same office, most of our weekly meetings are conducted virtually through teleconferences supported by tools that enable us to share computer screens.

Becoming effective in a virtual work environment has taken some time. For others just beginning the virtual team-building process, here are five guiding principles for you to consider.

Be thoughtful about developing trust. Trust building, essential to team success, is accelerated by informal interactions occurring outside of formal meetings. Co-located team members have the advantage of seeing each other in common spaces: hallways, dining centers, water coolers. For virtual teams, a face-to-face meeting early in the team’s formation can accelerate trust. If there’s an internal social media platform, encourage team members to complete their profiles; this can help them present a more complete image of themselves. Distributing team members’ biographies and photos can also help—and asking them to share their thoughts within the team’s social community can create opportunities for less-formal interaction. Also, trust can form more quickly when team members understand their roles, so formalize responsibilities at the outset. And highlight team accomplishments, however minor, as early in the process as possible to reinforce experiences that foster trust.

Be explicit about decision making. Co-located team members are more likely to understand and respect how decisions are made, based on common culture and experiences. Virtual teams, especially those with members from a variety of cultures, may have widely divergent expectations about decision making—unilateral, majority, unanimity or consensus. Articulate up front how the team will arrive at decisions and recognize that flexibility is key as you may need to rely on different types of decision making at different stages of the process.

Prepare meetings fastidiously. Bringing together globally dispersed teams often requires someone to make a personal sacrifice (sleep or leisure time) in order to participate making it even more essential to ensure that time together is as effective as possible. A virtual meeting’s success usually depends on the preparation that goes into it. Create an agenda and specify the objective of each topic—be it “make a decision,” or “raise awareness,” or “brainstorm options,” among others. Use technology to enable team members to see input, decisions and actions captured in real time. Postpone the meeting if adequate preparations have not been made.

Be artful about communication. One of the biggest challenges of virtual teaming is the inability of team members to see nonverbal cues—things like gestures, facial expressions and posture. Most of us probably know multitaskers who may have dialed into a meeting but aren’t fully committed to the dialogue. At the other extreme, a few team members may dominate the conversation. As a virtual leader, track who’s participating and engage those who tend to be quiet. To get broad-based feedback on a proposed solution, rather than asking who agrees (and thus experiencing that long pause where few respond), manage feedback by exception by asking if anyone disagrees.

Meet regularly one-on-one with your team. Regular team teleconferences are essential, but meeting with each of your direct reports one-on-one can bring insights and feedback that the more reserved of your team members, whether it’s because of personal style or culture, may be unwilling to voice as part of a group. Prioritize team meetings and individual discussions to gain a more-nuanced view of your organization.

What other recommendations do you have about building virtual teams? We’d love to hear them—please, share below.

Image Courtesy of Shutterstock

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