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Making Virtual Teams Work (even for small businesses)
7th December 2018 Video Conferencing, Dawn Balzaretti
When you build a team, what do you look for?
Expertise? Work ethic? An impressive professional background? If you answered yes to at least one of those questions, I have one more for you. Why limit yourself to one region or even to one country?
The fact is, if you don’t think beyond the office, you’re simply not going to attract the best talent.
So what if you can’t get to the people you need to speak to easily? Well, that’s where video conferencing comes in. Here are five ways it rocks at getting your message across (and helps you spot the sarcasm on your colleague’s face when he pulls out a classic ‘dad joke’)…
Why virtual teams are necessary
As Andy Molinsky from Psychology Today highlights, “virtual teams have an amazing potential to increase sales, enhance creativity, reach new markets and increase productivity.” And they are not just for big organisations – “one of the most valuable benefits of a geographically-diverse team is talent.” (Forbes).
Aside from the business benefits, the younger generation of workers who make up the majority of today’s workforce demand flexible work options.
Ricardo Fernandez has spent more than a decade working remotely in cross-cultural teams. In this TEDEx talk, he shares his experiences and tips on how to excel in a virtual workplace.
But, isn’t it easier to develop face-to-face relationships?
Managing or participating in an onsite team can be challenging at the best of times. But when it comes to teams with members in different places, how can you ensure high performance without feeling like Big Brother?
Regardless of the different backgrounds, onsite teams can build relationships, trust and can mitigate misunderstandings. They can communicate formally and informally. Onsite teams can easily connect.
But, on a global scale, this isn’t so easy.
To help, Tsedel Neeley from the Harvard Business Review shares a framework coined SPLIT – structure, process, language, identity and technology. Let’s take a quick look.
When teams are spread across a geographical distance, misconceptions about power can be created.
To mitigate this, teams need to feel like a single unit who share a common purpose and ‘frequent contact…can make all the difference’.
Telephone calls and emails are certainly useful. But as GlaxoSmithKline have experienced, utilising technology like video calls and conferencing has been effective in sharing knowledge across a team. It is the next best thing to face-to-face contact.
Great, so why should I pay for video conferencing when there are so many free solutions?
Of course, you can go down the ‘free’ route. But before you do, you should be aware of the potential issues so you can make an informed decision. Regardless of which solution you choose, here are some factors to consider:
- Are there meeting time restrictions? E.g. The free GoToMeeting® package only allows 40 minute meetings before automatically disconnecting.
- What is the maximum (if any) number of participants allowed? E.g. The number of video streams allowed on Skype® depends on the platform and device being used.
- Do other participants need to have the same software as you?
- Is the network safe? E.g. you may need to share private files.
- Does it offer all of the business tools that you need? If not, how much do these ‘extra’s’ cost?
Here, Neeley focuses on mimicking the impact of onsite teams being able to have informal chats. She shares that global leaders need to create ‘deliberate moments’ to communicate virtually. One interesting example is the need to replicate the atmosphere of a face-to-face meeting.
Before a meeting starts, people tend to have light conversations before getting to business – this should be built into virtual meetings.
If you do not address language gaps, you risk increasing the social distance between a global team. Some ways to do this are:
- Slow down your speech
- Avoid slang
- Encourage everyone to participate equally
- Get confirmation that key messages have been understood by everyone
Adapting to different cultures takes some initial work. For instance, making eye-contact is considered rude in some cultures, and necessary in others.
Being aware of these differences (and ensuring your team are as well), can go a long way to avoiding misunderstandings that arise from making behavioural assumptions.
Although virtual communication is no longer a challenge in our digital world, teams and leaders need to be conscious of selecting the right mode based on the situation; “Savvy leaders will communicate through multiple platforms to ensure that messages are understood and remembered.”
Managing or participating in a virtual team won’t create work for you. You just have to adjust the way you work.
Video comes to the rescue here too. Rather than spending your time travelling, you can set up a conference with your colleagues and customers and host it wherever you are.
Make virtual communications water-tight
While video conferencing is the next best thing to in-person communication, it’s not the same.
So how can you make sure that video conferencing works for your virtual team?
- Be prepared – test your technology and make sure your internet connection is stable.
- Configure the technology – set up enough lines for all of the participants.
- Know how to use it – make sure you know how to do things like muting and unmuting participants.
- Set up your environment – test your webcam, microphone and speakers to see and hear what participants will experience. You may need to adjust lighting, try different rooms etc.
- Pick a time carefully – if you are in an international team, time zones matter. Keep them in mind when choosing meeting times.
Most importantly, remember that you are using video conferencing to replicate the benefits of face-to-face contact. What you say is important, but so is your non-verbal communication.
Aside from these, virtual meetings share the same ‘rules’ of onsite meetings. They both need:
- An agenda
- People to dress and behave professionally
- Participants to avoid speaking at the same time
- An appropriate environment
As Emily Post rightly points out in her book Manners in a Digital World, Living Well Online, “Your ability to handle and manage (video conferencing) tools says something about your professional brand and who you are.”
The vast connectivity options available make communicating across the world a non-issue.
But consider your choices carefully – make it appropriate for the situation. For instance, video conferencing provides a richer experience than email. But in some situations, expecting an instant response may not be appropriate. Choose wisely.