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Over the years I’ve been a member of and consulted with numerous virtual teams that are committed to making our communities better places to live.  Through these experiences I’ve learned that the success of virtual teams ultimately depends upon the quality of relationships that members develop with each other.  Just like with any relationship we care about consistent attention and effort are needed for it to develop and grow.   

So, how do we make the time to build effective virtual teams with all of the day-to-day competing demands for our time and attention, like delivering life-changing products and services, demonstrating the impact of our work, and generating the funds needed to sustain our operations and grow?

If this question resonates with you, you’re not alone.  Let’s explore a conversation I’ve had with changemaker leaders to discover what prevents virtual teams striving for social impact from performing at their best and tips for addressing these challenges.   

Changemaker: I lead a team of directors who work in different cities. We run a national fellowship program that helps social entrepreneurs advance powerful ideas for building inclusive local economies.  I’d like your advice on how our directors can work better together.  Although we’re all working on the same program, it doesn’t feel like we’re a team.                                                  

Kimberley: What would it look like if the directors were a high-performing team?

Changemaker: That’s a good question.  We would all be on the same page about the goals we wanted to accomplish and how to get there.  We would have better communication and coordination so that everyone understands their role and what each other is doing.  Our meetings would be more productive because the most important issues would be fully addressed.  We would also feel more connected to each other.

Kimberley: Great!  This is helpful for understanding where you’d like your team to be.  I’d like to talk about relationships within your team since this affects all of the things you mentioned.  On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the highest, how openly do you communicate with the directors?  For example: Are you comfortable asking for help?  Do you provide constructive feedback?  Do you share your weaknesses and mistakes?                      

Changemaker: I would say it’s a 5.  If I were to rate the other directors I would probably give each of them a 5, too.  I think we’re all pretty good at giving each other constructive feedback.  I think it helps that we all want to give our best effort to a program that we care about and want to succeed.  I usually don’t ask any of the directors for help.  This is partly because I was raised to solve problems on my own.  I also feel uncomfortable asking the directors for help when I know that they have a heavy workload and I don’t want to add to it.  I’ve never shared my weaknesses and mistakes with the team.  As a leader, I feel like it’s my job to set a positive example for everyone else.            

Kimberley: Is it possible that you could set a positive example by openly communicating with the directors?  Do you think that this would create more connection within the team? 

Changemaker: Yes, I think so.  It would probably be difficult at first because it involves doing things differently from what I’m used to.  I can see how sharing more about ourselves would help us feel more connected to each other.  

Kimberley: That’s right!  The reason why this is so important is that trust is an essential component of all teams.  Trust is developed when we’re able to be vulnerable with each other.   To be vulnerable we need to get to know each other. This is why it’s important for teams to not only focus on the work that needs to get done, but also on their relationships with each other.  For virtual teams it helps to spend time together in person since informal conversations and social activities are good ways for people to get to know each other. You can also build time into meetings to get to know each other, like starting off the meeting by asking, how are you, and inviting each person to answer this question.  You can also ask icebreaker questions, like: Where did you grow up?  What’s your favorite hobby? 

Changemaker: That makes sense.  Although we usually have a lot to cover in our meetings, I think that we can build in a few minutes for getting to know each other.

Kimberley: Great!  One thing to keep in mind is that because virtual teams spend less time interacting with each other in person it’s important for team members to be more intentional about getting to know each other.  Virtual teams also need to invest more time and effort into communications to minimize miscommunication.  For example, make a phone call or use Skype to have a brief conversation, which can end up saving more time than going back and forth through emails or online chats. When using text-oriented communications it’s important to take extra care to think through the purpose of your message, the clarity of your ideas, and how this information is likely be received by the other person.     

Before we wrap up I’d also like to talk support systems.  As you mentioned earlier, change can be difficult especially when we’re used to doing things a certain way.  While habits can save us time because we don’t have to put as much effort into thinking about how we do things, they aren’t useful if we don’t get the results we want.  For any kind of change to be successful we need support.  Since we discussed your willingness to communicate more openly with your team, I’d like you think of at least one person who can support you in doing this.  Then ask that person for what support you would need to be successful.  Perhaps this is a family member or a close friend who can role play the conversation you’d like to have with your directors and check in with you afterwards to see how it went.            

From our conversation this changemaker leader learned that teams are not a collection of individuals, but a system in which each member’s behavior has an impact on everyone else. He resolved to build greater trust within the team so that issues that were on the directors’ minds about the real challenges they were facing in building a successful program, but did not feel comfortable raising, could be openly discussed and addressed.

This article was originally published by SEE Change Magazine on December 4, 2018.

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