On a workshop this week with a global IT consultancy I was running an exercise which has been part of our virtual team training for 20 years. In it, a small group of managers have a task which has to be executed involving a group of remote workers. We give the managers a 10 minute ‘travel budget’, which they can use as they see fit to connect with their virtual team.
This particular group of managers immediately created a group messaging link to their virtual team using groupme (a business version of WhatsApp). They sent their virtual workers a copy of the task instructions from the start and used their ‘travel budget’ time to check understanding and build trust with the virtual team. As a result they completed the task 10 minutes early.
Now, what was interesting about this, you might say – we know these new apps enable information to be shared much more easily than ever before. However there are two things to think about:
Firstly, there have been technologies around for the last 50 years that enable the sharing of information. Whilst the use of groupme was a first, managers have always had the technology to share information with their virtual teams if they chose to do so. The technology was not the key to success; rather it was the behavior of the manager. Often in this exercise and in real-life, managers keep information back as they (consciously or unconsciously) see it as a source of their power and feel that sharing knowledge will lessen this power. However in this instance the managers chose to engage with their virtual team early, shared the information and so built trust.
The significance of this is explained by science. A review of 52 studies covering 12,615 individuals in 1,850 teams found that the relationship between team trust and team performance was stronger in virtual teams as compared to face-to-face teams.
Yet when we work with people remotely, or they’re from different cultures, different parts of the business or even different companies – we tend to treat them as resources – to be contacted only when we need something. When we’re co-located and from the same department, we treat them as people (and as a result tend to trust each other much more).
Further research with 40 global virtual teams demonstrated the importance of a strong one-to-one relationship between a manager and virtual team members. Their findings showed that where this relationship was strong and the leader communicated frequently, the virtual team member was more likely to contribute to team decision making, which in turn had a positive effect on team innovation. The importance of this increased as team members became more dispersed.
The second point to make is that the exercise was running in parallel with another manager and worker group. The workers were located in the same room and yet none of the learning was shared or transferred.
We are often quick to blame a lack of communication as the problem. This experience highlighted the best and worst of people’s behavior as enablers and inhibitors to virtual team success.