Virtual Collaboration by Design

two female colleagues

“It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”   Charles Darwin

Virtual Collaboration is a New Learnable Skill

Successful working from home is a skill, just like programming, designing, or writing. It takes time and effort to develop that skill, and the traditional office culture with frequent in person interactions and physical proximity does not give us a reason to do that.

“To master the virtual equation and make all the elements work together, you have to become the connector,”says Yael Zofi, virtual teams expert and cultural coach. “You may need to shift gears, perform team tune-ups, realign, and refuel your team’s energy along the way.”

Now that virtual work has become the new normal for organizations, there is a need to refine how we communicate and interact using digital media. Virtual work requires new approaches to establishing trust, collaborating, recognizing and managing conflict, making decisions, being open and honest about failures and successes, and providing feedback. Team members also need to learn how to show empathy and connect on a personal level using an impersonal media.

What’s Different about Virtual Collaboration and Teaming?

While working from home and virtual teams that span continents is nothing new, virtual collaboration and teaming is not an exception anymore: it has become a norm. It is no longer a perk extended to attract the talent pool, appeal to a younger workforce, or to fulfill a sustainability mandate. A ‘virtual manager’ is not a fad. All management will be, at least in part, virtual.

This shift changes how we need to prepare the managers for their supervisory and leadership roles.  When you no longer meet your workmates by the water cooler or during the lunch break every day, you lose the ability to know instinctively who you can and cannot trust. In a physically distant team, trust is measured almost exclusively in terms of reliability: interpersonal trust is replaced by task-oriented trust.

Scientific evidence shows that virtual teams deal with more challenges than face-to-face teams. This is because they must rely on electronic communication, have less things in common, and potentially less overlap of working hours. The more virtual teams communicate through electronic media, the less effective they are. This is because team members share less information with each other, have a harder time interpreting and understanding the information they receive, and get delayed feedback. Further, electronic media makes it harder to spot non-verbal cues, such as tone of voice, warmth, and attentiveness. All of this adds to the difficulty of sending and receiving clear messages.

Tune Your Managers into the Virtual World

Shifting to the virtual distant collaboration world requires at least three strategies.

  • Connect your managers in an effective and seamless way. Yes, we are all connected, and we use a variety of tools and platforms. The question is how to make them available to remote managers in a way that is easy to access and manage. Think how many different tools and apps you are using and whether you could connect them into a seamless system that does not require constant shifting and re-logging.
  • Organize the workflow so it suits the virtual collaboration. This relates to scheduling and running weekly meetings, adjusting the frequency of personal interactions, providing feedback, and monitoring the results.
  • Train your managers in virtual collaboration skills. It is not enough to connect people with technology and to reorganize work. To be effective, managers need to sharpen their skills to be able to operate in the new conditions. To make virtual teamwork work well, you will need to move your team to a new set of behaviors and virtual management skills with human engagement as the first priority.

Developing Managers as Virtual Connectors

Unless your organization operates by design in a 100% virtual environment where people are hired to match the virtual nature of the company, you need to prepare your managers to get them ready to work in a virtual team and act as virtual connectors.

The managers need to learn how to virtually collaborate on tasks. Establishing roles and responsibilities takes on a new challenge in the virtual world. Chances are that teams end up in disagreements and they need to plan how to effectively handle dissent and conflict without a physical presence. As mentioned earlier, interpersonal trust is overshadowed by performance trust, how each member of the team contributes to the tasks and how well he or she performs. This requires that teams learn how to make fair and inclusive decisions that increase employee engagement and create a sense of ownership. They also need to learn to be transparent about their mistakes and failures. It may be easier to hide and shirk in the virtual world in the short run, but in the end the lack of performance or lack of disclosure will come to light and will ruin virtual team trust.  And above all, to be effective as virtual connectors, managers need to offer support and constructive feedback to keep their teams engaged and performing to the best of their abilities.

How Best to Learn Virtual Teaming Skills?

The Peer Learning Institute’s Virtual Teaming Program is one way to ease your managers’  transition into the new VRI world: Virtual, Remote, and Impersonal. The best way for managers to hone the necessary virtual skills is to practice them on the job. Small virtual peer learning groups of up 5-6 managers from different parts of the organization meet weekly for a short session. They collaboratively learn a set of virtual competencies to meet one challenge at a time, then practice them in their daily work. With a minimal time commitment and immediate application, the Program enables the managers to develop, practice and adopt the necessary virtual collaboration and teaming behaviors.

If you want to ease your managers’ transition into the world of virtual collaboration and teaming and set them up for success, please contact The Peer Learning Institute to discover how the Virtual Teaming Program can help. Email Deborah Laurel, call 608-219-3594 or schedule a mutually convenient time to chat:

#virtualcollaboration #peerlearninggroups  #virtualteaming  #VRIworld

Peter Korynski, Co-Founder and Chief Program Officer, The Peer Learning Institute

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