A field study with 43 global R&D teams from a top five Fortune 500 petroleum firm found that spontaneous communication played a pivotal role in moderating the level of interpersonal and task conflict in distributed virtual teams, through stronger shared identity and shared context.
So how can we encourage spontaneous communication, shared identity and shared context in our own virtual teams?
Here are 10 practical, proven tips to pick from that will freshen up our online interactions, bind people together and keep innovation flowing:
- Keep going back to your virtual team’s shared and distributed goal – why the virtual team has been set up to collaborate across geographies and how success depends on each other (and if it doesn’t, don’t try to work as a team)
- Early on encourage virtual team members to describe their backgrounds, the value they hope to add to the group, the way they prefer to work and to give a quick video tour of their workspace. Repeat this when anyone new joins the team
- Take five minutes at the beginning of conference calls for everyone to share a recent professional success or some personal news
- Create a positively loaded virtual team nickname
- Rotate virtual meeting times every week to make sure one member is not always waking up early for meetings and that another is not going home too late
- Acknowledge individual employee achievements with weekly ‘shout outs’
- Celebrate virtual team success with a virtual reward ceremony. E.g. send a small present to all team members and get everyone to open it at the same time during a video call
- Regularly check in on levels of motivation: for example if using WebEx, use an image of a ‘virtual thermometer’ for people to put their pointers against how motivated they feel, or use pulse tools such as 15Five
- To lessen feelings of isolation and develop real relationships through achieving results together, create smaller interdependent tasks and partner people up to achieve a specific goal
- Strengthen peer-to-peer relationships by everyday chat via Whatsapp groups, skype chat or your online collaboration platform – covering life as well as work. Even better, encourage team members to schedule regular 10 minute informal ‘virtual coffees’ with webcams on
And before we fall into the trap of thinking a ‘virtual coffee’ sounds like a lovely idea, but I haven’t got time – remember the research above and think of it as 10 minutes invested now to save hours of hassle dealing with conflict later down the line.