One of the questions that comes up frequently around virtual teams is the issue of team building, how, when the personnel are distributed across a number of locations, can you build a team and maintain a collegiate environment for personnel to operate.
There are fundamentally two different approaches that can be considered when starting to think about team building in virtual teams, face to face events and virtual events. The face to face team building events are only really available for teams where the budget will allow everyone to gather together for the initial and subsequent events. This is typically either a virtual team made up of groups located reasonably close together or where only a small part of the overall team is located remote to the core.
Virtual teams with large groups dispersed over large distances or even small teams with very limited budgets are not going to be able to arcade face to face team building events. These teams must therefore find ways to undertake team building activities by distance.
Why Team Building Matters
Team building is a way to establish relationships between personnel. Properly conducted, team building allows personnel to move up the relationship curve from complete strangers to acquaintances relatively quickly.
Teams starting out with no previous relationship, will spend much of their first period working together getting to know each other and coming to understand how their new colleagues think and operate. By undertaking a team building session these same personnel get to know these things quickly, allowing them to get down to their tasks quicker and become more productive more quickly.
Face To Face Team Building
There are many different ways to conduct face to face team building, and many organisations providing excellent material along with numerous books on the subject. Regardless of the approach thats taken, there are a few things I recommend for face to face virtual team building that may differ from team building for a co-located team.
- Cultural sensitivity – When planning and holding team building events for virtual teams the material and approach must be sensitive to all of the cultures involved. What may work in one society could be a complete disaster in others, some cultures will prefer to be involved in team building exercises that are open and gregarious while others will prefer to be more reserved and introvert in their activities. Holding team building that places the quiet cultures in an environment where they have to share personal details and behave in ways that are uncomfortable to them will not build a strong team and may even be destructive.
- Allow extra time – Allow time in the team building event for the personnel to undertake some self determined activities. This could include quiet, small group discussions, facilitated sight seeing, or whatever activities the personnel want to experience, so long as it is undertaken by groups of personnel from more than one location. Building shared experiences will allow them to have common points of reference once they return home.
- Include some work activities – Set some tasks for the teams to undertake while they are together around how they will coordinate and share work once the project starts. get them to agree the foundations for their collaboration between them and where appropriate document it in flow charts, charters or some other similar form.
Remote Team Building
In contrast to face to face team building, building remote teams presents a very different set of challenges for organisations, not least of which may be time differences, access to the required technology and the availability of the right personnel at the appropriate times. As such, remote team building will often be a slower, more organic exercise when compared to face to face.
As with face to face virtual team building, remote virtual team building must be conducted in a culturally sensitive way. Indeed, provision of cross cultural training is often highly beneficial, most especially in a remote exercise since cultural differences can be more confronting and easier over reacted to by distance.
Remotely undertaking team building requires a great deal of planning to understand how the teams will interact and just who needs the team building. In essence the remote team building must focus primarily on those who will interact remotely first. These individuals will be the glue that will hold the virtual team together and also the conduits through which communications will flow. They must be able to communicate in an open, collaborative and culturally sensitive way, even at times of overall internal conflict and tension these individuals must be able to communicate dispassionately. If they get pulled into the same conflicts the relationship will quickly collapse and the endeavour fail.
These key points of interface therefore need to be given access to deep and well planned team building activities, and if this can only be done remotely, this team building must be on the best platform available, using the richest forms of communication available. Facilitated team building across video conference facilities would be the best, after which simply good access to video conference facilities for them to undertake their own relationship building would be the second choice.
The balance of the team needs to have a good relationship with their interface managers so that these interface managers are able to share information accurately with their virtual counterparts. If the local relationship between personnel and interface managers is not a strong one information may not be shared and the overall project will have hiccups when issues eventually surface. This issues is not as serious as a breakdown in the interface but is still something that should be avoided.
The Impact Of Not Undertaking Team Building
Of course it is possible to have a virtual team and not undertake any structured team building. Eventually the various members of the virtual team will build their working relationships, but, how long it will take and how many false steps and avoidable conflicts will occur along the way is the thing any leader must consider.
On a project with a multi million or multi billion dollar budget just how much are you prepared to risk to avoid paying a little for some team building and how much avoidable risk to the venture would you accept. Taking the time to build strong teams should be considered as risk mitigation, an investment in a predictable future and predictable outcome, not a frivolous junket for a few personnel.
Ulfire specialises in supporting organisations establish and run high performing virtual teams, we combine extensive practical experience from decades of involvement in virtual teams with current real world academic research into the way members of virtual teams collaborate. Please contact us to discuss ways we can assist your business.
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