The majority of team building events are held at a pre-determined location by the provider of the events, so the clients come to the team building providers. Or, alternatively, the clients will decide where they want their event to be held and they will get their chosen provider to come to them to deliver the event. Whichever way is chosen, it means that the everyone is brought together to take part in the same event.

Though, for some teams it is not feasible in terms of time, money or geographical distance to bring everyone together for their event. They might have very limited funds, or might be spread throughout different continents across the globe. But just because they cannot all come together at the same location it does not mean that the team does not need a team building event.

So for these teams, especially the virtual teams, the management group needs to come up with an alternative option to the team events where they need to be physically located together. And one of the ways is for the group to take part in a virtual team event. This is an activity, which can be delivered completely online, and that everyone can take part in no matter where they are based in the world.

The idea for this is simple - bringing team building to the team, rather than bring the team to the team building. And this is where online based team options allow virtual teams to experience the same benefit as non-virtual teams. Generally, these options will be lower cost then a facilitated session as well, so they are also good for those groups with a restricted budget.

Using the Internet allows teams, that otherwise would not be able to participate in team events, to experience it. And virtual teams benefit from it just as non-virtual teams do. A collection of individuals is not a team. They need to learn how to work together, to understand their different individual and team strengths and weaknesses - whether they are a virtual or non-virtual team.

It is up to the groups to arrange themselves and decide how best to tackle the situation. To maximise the learning potential using online team building options it is best for them to use whatever methods of communication they normally do. This will help the everyone relate and maximise the learning back to their work place.

There are not many professionally delivered online team building events that are suitable for all groups. So when you find one that is right, you should make the most of it.

The company that Nicola Hunt works for, Sandstone Limited, specialise in delivering unique and innovative team building activities, which are only available directly through themselves or through one of their appointed international partners.

 Making virtual teams work

If you’re looking to shave a few percentage points off the cost of a project, then opting for a virtual approach can be attractive. Rather than spending oodles of the budget on flights, hotels and expenses, why not cut out all the expensive travel and conduct all the interactions across electronic channels?

The problem with this approach is that it comes with a hidden cost - by eliminating the face-to-face contact, you’re just reduced the chances of building trust between the members of your team. And there’s a substantial body of evidence to suggest that trust between members is a key feature of successful teams.

A recent paper from Dr Niki Panteli from Bath University’s School of Management looked at ways of developing trust within virtual teams, and it’s worth a read if you’re in the throes of building this sort of organisation. The three main characteristics that are identified are shared goals, the dynamics of power within the team, and communication. And it’s this last one for which technology can play a major part.

Part of the communication process that’s highlighted is social interaction, and this is one of the elements that’s removed by a virtual environment - there’s no watercooler around which to congregate. One technique that we’ve used quite successfully is to ensure that there’s at least one physical face-to-face meeting between team members during the course of the project, even if the rest of the work is carried out entirely virtually. By being able to visualise someone as a result of meeting them can help break through the impersonal nature of email, video conferening and phone calls.

A second trick is to put together a ‘biography page’ somewhere on the project intranet. Each team member contributes a mugshot and a potted biography, so that you’ve got a little bit of background context about the people that you’re interacting with. And it also helps to include some social detail as well as the standard work-style resume - try including a paragraph on ‘three things noone knows about me’ in the bio.

And if you’ve provided that sort of background detail in the team bios, you can build on this by the way that the project team communicates. Project documentation can be highly impersonal and dry - while they’re important, status reports and risk logs don’t help to project the individual, and it’s relationships with individuals that will be important when crises strike. Using a project blog as a means of communicating between team members can allow an individual’s personal style to come through - it has a more “3D” effect than formally-dry reports.

3 Responses to “Making virtual teams work”

  1. Paul Says:

    I’ve been working in the extranet field for the past five years or so, and most of the vendors will make claims about how the technology can be used to cut meeting-related costs, etc - and have linked to your interesting post.

    My particular focus is on the construction industry, though, and here collaboration technologies encounter the highly formalised, conservative, contractual and therefore risk-averse world of architects, engineers, contractors and other project team members. I can see how project blogs might work in less formal projects, but how do you suggest they could be incorporated into this type of environment?

    Building a blog into the extranet runs the risk that it never gets used for the kind of personalised communication we want to encourage (even some experienced users are still uneasy about the transparency of even a formal extranet), while keeping it separate may create a parallel communication route through which some project-specific interactions bypass the extranet and so are omitted from the audit trail and archive.

  2. Martin Burns Says:

    You’re right about the ‘at least one face to face meeting’ - it’s extremely powerful, particularly at the start of the project. In every project, I *always* try to get budget for a face-to-face kickoff meeting.

    Synchronous online communications are also extremely helpful if time differences permit - particularly if they’re not tightly controlled to task subject matter. I’ve worked in distributed teams with IRC channels, and AIM conferences that get opened up 1st thing, and stay open all day, specifically to encourage ‘idle’ chatting.

    Yes, they’re a parallel communication route, and you need discipline to remember to record task iteractions formally too, but they do build relationships and trust. They work particularly well when the team’s facing external adversity (which in itself can be a team-building experience).

  3. Bill Bruck Says:

    I think that, whether mediate by the web or not, teams are fundamentally about people working together with people. And of course trust is an essential dynamic.

    F2F, trust is build of shared conversations, from which we gain an understanding of the other person, and shared commitments, from which we come to believe that a person will do what they say they will do.

    The problem with much of the VTeam technologies today is that they are not optimized for conversation. We experience them as websites, not team centers. The tools for project management are robust, the tools for dialog are weak in many collaboration platforms.

    Blogs are an answer, but perhaps not the best answer to thsi problem. Blogs are optimized for a Hyde Park experience - strolling from soap box to soap box, listening to proclamations, then standing on your own.

    Good discussion forum software is optimized for, well, discussions. The integration of a strong discussion engine into a team center is, IMHO, the single best thing that can be done from a technology standpoint to support trust building.

    (We have a white paper on creating and maintaining online communities that applies as well to online teams at that might be of interest in this regard.)

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