Managers of virtual teams often struggle with how to create that special connection of high performing teams. The relational magic when team members clearly care for and help each other, much deeper than simply meeting the transactional requirements to keep the work proceeding. The question is whether this special connection can happen in a virtual team when team members rarely see each other. I propose the answer is ‘Yes’ and it comes from the conscious development of a positive team habit or norm.
Recently Chester Elton and Adrian Gostick wrote an article about the team leadership on the International Space Station. Living and working together in such tight quarters on the Space Station can be a challenge for even the calmest of souls, so Chris Hadfield, the team leader, focused on helping the team to build friendship and empathy before they left earth and while in the space station. One exercise was the following (from the article):
Hadfield said these acts of kindness were often anonymous and unsolicited. One fellow might help cooking a meal when it wasn’t his turn, another might tidy up a sleeping area for a crewmate who had to rush to duty, another might check a piece of support equipment or clean a filter or for an astronaut who needed to get some rest. He said these kind acts seemed to focus the team members on serving others versus themselves, and kept tempers in check and egos in the right place.
Can and should this be done with a virtual team? Absolutely! But I suggest some modifications.
The team agrees that each team member will do something for the other team members for some frequency, perhaps once per week. However, it does not have to be anonymous, in fact, preferably not. The act of kindness is initiated with the question ‘how can I help you?’ and a discussion ensues.
The reason and benefits of my modified approach are:
- One of disadvantages of working virtually is that team members do not understand the context of their colleagues. They are too far away from each other, and often do not know what is happening locally. Through the conversation ‘how can I help you’, they start to reveal for each other insights into the local issues, how things work, and start to understand each other’s context. The giver may offer a new idea for the local issue, simply because they have another context and perspective themselves.
- One of the risks of doing an anonymous act of kindness from such a distance, is that the giver relies on their own assumptions to determine what is needed. As most virtual teams are crossing borders and cultures, these assumptions may be very different from the reality for the receiver. Through the conversation ‘how can I help you’, the giver has the opportunity – if they listen, are open, and use the skills of inquiry – to learn about the culture of their colleagues and realize their own cultural assumptions and influences as well.
- Often virtual teams do not leverage the advantages of being virtual, and one advantage is the expanded network and resources available to a virtual team. Through the conversation ‘how can I help you’, the receiver begins to leverage the global network for local issues as well through the giver. Perhaps the giver is simply providing a new idea, making a new connection, or opening a door which the receiver could not.
Finally, I propose these shared moments of giving and receiving strengthen the empathy and friendship between the team members. It is extra effort, requires consciously developing the habit, and may seem awkward at first. However, bridges will be built and the team members have a chance to look beyond their own worlds.
Working on team norms is one aspect of team facilitation and coaching for the virtual team. To find out more, please contact Theresa Sigillito Hollema at firstname.lastname@example.org