Note: This is the third post in a 4-part series on Leading a Virtual Team. I’ve listed links below to the other three posts:
- Part 1: Connect & Build Relationships
- Part 2: Establish a Consistent Leadership Presence
- Part 4: Acquire and Develop the “Right” Talent
Part 3: Perfect Team Communications
Ahhh…communication (sigh). Why is it that nearly every conversation I have about something gone wrong includes the word “communication” as a key focal point? We’ve been practicing human communication since our Neanderthal days and studying it as an academic field as early on as Ancient Greece (to my knowledge, possibly prior), but we just can’t seem to get it right.
Termed by many as a “soft skill” (argh!), communication is hard – very hard. Add on the growing existence of virtual teams in today’s workforce, and you probably feel like just hanging up your hat when it comes to perfecting communications.
BUT (here’s where this somber story takes a turn in the protagonist’s favor), you CAN enhance communications amongst your virtual team. How, you ask? I’ve rounded up a few tips in this third installment of Core’s Leading a Virtual Team series.
Create a Game Plan
Communicate about your communications. Don’t just assume that everyone has the same practices when it comes to text vs. email vs. conference calls vs. IM vs. [insert any number of virtual comms platforms here]. Because there are so many channels out there at your disposal, it’s important that you create a game plan and make sure everyone is on the same page.
What channels do we use to communicate what?
For example, you might determine as a group to use:
- Group chat for brief back-and-forth throughout the day (preventing a mess in your inbox)
- Email for lengthier messages; communication with clients; communicating across time zones that prohibit real-time chat; etc.
- Phone when something is more efficient to discuss during a quick 5-10 minute call versus lots of back and forth on chat or email
- Google Drive for file sharing and collaboration
- Shared calendar for out-of-office schedules
- Weekly digital newsletter for sales success stories and industry trends/thought leadership
- Private team Facebook page for leisure and social content
- Weekly webcam calls for team touch points /updates
What’s appropriate and what’s not?
Once you’ve determined what each channel should be used for, you might want to consider crafting general behavioral guidelines. Have your team develop these “rules of thumb” themselves. For example:
Email Do’s And Don’ts
|Acknowledge via a reply within a 24-hr period||Include people who don’t need to know or take action|
|Be as brief as possible and use bullets/lists whenever possible||Use ALL CAPS|
|Use the red flag sparingly – only in true cases of urgency||Reply All unless everyone needs to see your response|
|Avoid after-hours and weekend emails to respect personal time and wellness||Use email to address a sensitive topic that deserves a more personal delivery|
Virtual Meeting Do’s and Don’ts
|Have a clear purpose and agenda||Schedule on Monday mornings or Friday afternoons (team members need this time to adequately prepare for their week ahead and tie up any loose ends)|
|Start and end on time if you are the host and arrive a few minutes early as a participant||Send call-in details right before it starts (include them in original appt.)|
|Turn your webcam on (often helps avoid people talking over each other and keeps everyone more engaged in the discussion)||Invite unnecessary participants who are not needed to advance the topic forward|
|Open the virtual meeting space up 10 minutes prior to start time if you are the host||Fail to address the details of who is responsible for what (be specific!)|
|Mute your phone when not speaking to minimize background noise (and unmute before you speak!)||Interrupt/announce yourself if you log in late; the Host will be able to see that you have joined|
|Be aware of all time zones when scheduling your meeting||Turn beeping notifications on for attendees entering and leaving the meeting space|
|Conclude by recapping discussion and summarizing next steps||Have your email notifications on when sharing your screen|
As an aside, check out this funny YouTube clip. I’m sure many of you have already seen it, but just had to share:
With a plan like this in place, your team now knows what communication channels to use for what purpose and how to appropriately use each one. You will really start rocking and rolling now!
Three implementation tips for your virtual team’s communications strategy:
- Turn it into something visual. A quick reference page for your team to keep visible at their home office would be helpful.
- Make sure you onboard every new team member with your communications strategy from Day 1.
- Revisit every 6-12 months and tweak as needed. With the number of digital communication tools entering the market each day, you never know what might work better. However, also don’t feel a need to change just because the latest trendy product or service has launched. If it’s working – stick with it.
Become Tech Savvy & Provide Access to Tools
As the leader of a virtual team, it’s imperative that you are very aware of digital workplace tools and that you provide your team members with the tools they need to be successful as a virtual worker. Don’t skimp in this area. It will make your team feel inadequately equipped, and thus less valued.
Ask yourself – Does my team have the right digital infrastructure in place to most efficiently and effectively support each other and our clients?
Consider needs such as:
- IM/Chat (I’ve had colleagues recommend HipChat and Slack during this series)
- Shared calendaring
- Files sharing and collaboration – Check out Google Drive, Evernote, Basecamp and Dropbox just to name a few
- Screen sharing & web conferencing – Check out join.me, Google Hangouts, or any number of web conferencing solutions
- Social networks – You can use public sites like Twitter, Facebook or Instagram (that have the capability to set up private collaboration), or you can consider internal enterprise solutions such as Jive, Share Point and Yammer
- Hardware – Don’t forget about critical physical devices such as smart phones, laptops, tablets, hot spots, etc. Make sure your team members are equipped with reliable devices; otherwise it can really hinder productivity.
As always, please share your own thoughts and resources below. There are so many useful tools to help virtual teams these days, and I’ve only skimmed the surface here with some of what I’ve shared. I’d love to hear what is working well for your virtual team.
Stay tuned for our last piece on this series, which will be “Acquire & Develop the Right Talent.”
Till next time…
Let me set the scene. 90 degrees. Loads of humidity. Not an ounce of shade on 100 yards of turf, encircled by a dark black track. Only four players on the Bears show up for a game against the #2 team, the Bengals. Oh…and they’re all 4 and 5-year-olds.
This was my view at McNich’s athletic field in Cincinnati on Sunday as my oldest son attended his final flag football game of the season. Little did I know that I was about to witness a classic case of DISENGAGEMENT and the effects it has on TEAM PERFORMANCE.
My son loves football…lives it, breathes it, says the words Who Dey more than any other term between September and January every year. He looks forward to his flag football game each week and always gives it his all.
This Sunday was different. A few of the players on his team were just not feelin’ it…for whatever reason (remember – they’re only 4 and 5-years-old). Ben’s smiles and excitement quickly turned to a pretty grim looking face. He was starting to let the heat of the day and the morale of the team get to him, and it was changing the type of player he decided to be on the field that day.
Your disengaged employees will bring down your team far easier and quicker than your greatest cheerleader can ever build them up.
It’s just human nature. It’s easier for us to gravitate toward negativity. We get sucked in. That disengaged mindset can even creep over into the minds, and ultimately behaviors, of some of your most engaged employees. And it doesn’t take long. Eventually, collective team performance suffers.
The Bears lost the game against the Bengals Sunday. But it doesn’t have to end that way.
I’ve written previously about how individuals can take ownership of their own engagement, and I’ve also written about what an organization can do to build an engaged workforce. There’s a third player in this mix though, and that’s the manager, or whoever is in that “team lead” role. It’s a shared responsibility amongst all three parties to build a culture of engagement in your workplace.
These tips are for that third party. What could you have done to turn that game around on Sunday and ensure a strong team performance in the end?
1. Identify the disengagement. Keep your eyes and ears open and know when someone on your team is disengaged. Acknowledgement is a critical first step.
2. Uncover the root cause. Identifying the disengagement only goes so far. It’s your job to understand what is causing it. You can do this through something as formal as an engagement survey or as informal as an open and transparent conversation. During this stage, make sure you seek to understand. Actively listen. Resist the temptation to jump to your own conclusions. The reason for the disengagement could span a large host of underlying causes, such as:
- Poor job/role fit
- A wavering trust in leadership
- The perception of having no growth at the company
- Not feeling recognized for their work
- Lack of understanding of how what they do every day aligns with what the organization is trying to achieve
3. Address the root cause. Now it’s time to act. Once you identify the root cause, collaboratively build action plans around it that everyone has bought into and can own. One cause of disengagement on the football field that day was the heat. In response, we poured ice cold water over the players’ heads. Please don’t pour ice cold water on your employees, but hopefully you get my point.
4. Measure and re-assess. As with anything, monitor progress. Have check points along the way, and initiate more of that open and transparent communication about the results you’re seeing, whether positive or negative. Alter the course of action if it’s not working.
Bottom line – when you see disengagement amongst your team, tackle it head on (no pun intended!). Don’t let it fester. Your team will thank you.
Need help working through the four steps listed above? Reach out, and I’d love to help you and your team through the process.
That’s right…I said no bosses. Zero. Zilch. Nada. But, oh the chaos that would ensue from all of those unsupervised children running rampant throughout your organization! (electronic tone clarification: sarcasm)
Okay, so I’m being a bit facetious with that last statement, but maybe I got your attention? I’ve been wanting to blog about this topic ever since attending the 2014 Association for Talent Development (ATD) International Conference & Expo in Washington, D.C. last month. I had the pleasure of attending a learning session titled, “Skills for Driving Innovation in Flat Organizations” given by Dr. Debra France (@fstinno) with W.L. Gore & Associates. Since its founding in 1958, W.L. Gore has operated using what they call a “lattice” structure, a model where relationships are everything and hierarchies and even titles are minimal, nearly non-existent. They have been featured in many innovation and management-related business articles and research studies over the years, as I’m sure many of you are aware.
There are three main roles at W.L. Gore:
- Sponsors: Every single employee has one. Their purpose is to create micro-environments for innovators by coaching, mentoring, guaranteeing continued development, and supporting ideas. These are volunteer roles, and everyone chooses their own Sponsor by just simply asking. You can “break up” the relationship at any time, for any number of reasons. Some people might be Sponsors to 2-10 at a time, depending on how many they are willing to take on. Some, on the other hand, might not be a Sponsor to anyone at all (which is usually not a good sign).
- Team Leaders: The people in these roles are identified/elected by the team. Specific responsibilities are provided in detail in the Support section below.
- Associates: This comprises the large majority of the organization, as it is every other role that is not a Team Leader.
Note: You can be both a Sponsor and a Leader, or you could also be a Sponsor and an Associate.
As stated on their website, the lattice structure creates a culture described as “a team-based environment that encourages personal initiative and person-to-person communication among all associates.” Employees are expected to grow and continuously nurture their lattice from Day 1.
At the core of this structure are several small and agile teams, which form naturally around business needs and opportunities. Everyone on the team holds each another accountable, to the point of stack ranking their teammates on both the Impact and Effectiveness of their contributions to the larger enterprise. Employees develop their own “commitments” (equivalent to performance objectives); and projects, tasks and ideas advance through influence and consensus, not authority.
Centrally-supported employee development efforts are heavily focused on communication and how to facilitate and grow strong relationships. I’ve already mentioned the support Associates get from their Sponsors, so let’s take a look at what the role of Leaders is at W.L. Gore and how they support the team.
Note: An overarching belief at W.L. Gore is that there is the need for a “Leader” role with specific and differentiated responsibilities, but yet the act of “Leadership” is expected of all.
The Role of a Leader in a Bossless Organization
Direction (strategies, priorities, decisions) – Make sure decisions are made and made well…but by the team.
Expectations – Is the environment healthy and productive? Is the team aligned with the broader enterprise? What metrics are being used to measure success?
People – Provide motivation, development and resources for the team (in conjunction with Sponsors)
Interfaces – Foster interdependencies across, beyond, and between the entire enterprise to create value. Ensure the team is interfacing with other teams.
No Easy Feat – Start Small
Dr. France readily admitted that this has been an easier road for them than maybe others because they’ve known no other road. Life at W.L. Gore has been like this since the very beginning. For companies interested in exploring this structure further that are already larger than 10 employees, she advised that you start with something small in a functional area or with a project in which you think it could work well, and then monitor and measure success.
Is There Something To This?
I have to believe that W.L. Gore is doing something right – they have been included on all Fortune 100 “Best Companies to Work For” lists since 1998 and have thrived as a business over the course of time. Although not new to them, this structure is becoming an increasingly popular practice in today’s business world, with Zappos being one of the most recent companies to gain media attention around their decision to go bossless.
So even if you don’t make the leap to strip away all management titles at your company, what can we learn and apply from organizations like W.L. Gore? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Special thanks to Dr. Debra France for sharing W.L. Gore’s story with us and sparking conversation and ideation around this concept!
I am currently sponsoring a project with 10 team members in 6 global office locations, 5 divisions, and 4 time zones. Enough to make your head spin, right? I also just recently joined a newly formed Advisory Council for a non-profit. We held our first meeting last week, and it is an exciting time as we define our vision and goals for the group.
Both of these current projects have reminded me of a valuable lesson I learned from Duke University’s Coach Krzyzewski (“Coach K”) at this year’s Leadercast event. Whether you’re working with a team of 3, 10, 20, or more, all local or dispersed around the globe, it’s important for the team to answer this vital question in order to be successful:
How are we going to live?
It’s kind of like the rules of the road – pass in the left lane, stop at red, don’t text, so on and so forth. The same rules of thumb need to be identified by any team working collectively to achieve a common goal (project team, product team, department, committee, etc.).
Below are a few questions your team should ask itself early on to define your own “rules of the road”.
Why does your team exist and what specific objectives do you need to accomplish?
How will you communicate with each other? What tools will you use? Consider things such as frequency, times, and locations of meetings; online collaboration tools such as Google Docs and/or social platforms; email distributions, etc.
Roles and Responsibilities
What is each individual team member expected to contribute to the achievement of your objectives? Is there a team lead, project manager, facilitator, note taker, etc.? Do you have sub-teams charged to drive specific initiatives? Most importantly – who brings the coffee and bagels and who organizes the celebratory happy hours?
Boundaries and Levels of Authority
What decision making powers does each member of the team have? Who can approve expenses, and up to what amounts? What actions are team members empowered to take?
Relationships Outside of the Immediate Team
How will you work with other teams? Create Service Level Agreements where appropriate.
Standards/Code of Conduct
What behaviors does each team member expect from one another? Consider the following:
- Participation/attendance (maybe you even define required attendance levels)
- Sharing of duties – how flexible are your job roles? What is your overall philosophy toward helping each other out?
- Challenge one another, but in a respectful way
- Keep a positive attitude
One Final Note
When Coach K asked his U.S. Men’s Basketball Olympic Team how they wanted to live, they responded by saying, “always be on time to practice and always give it your all during practice.” In his past seven years as a Team U.S.A. coach, he’s never had anyone show up late and has never had a bad practice. Why? Because this rule was theirs. They owned it. They defined it. Therefore, they live it.
I encourage you to answer these questions with your fellow team members and document a charter for how you’re going to live.