This IS the digital age. There's no doubt that a virtual team brings a multitude of benefits to organizations today (i.e. the ability to retain top-notch talent from anywhere in the world, the incredible diversity presented through global and cross-cultural viewpoints, huge monetary savings in corporate travel expenses if you have to bring someone in from a distance...) But we also know that pulling together a top-notch virtual team doesn't come without challenges.
Between 2005 and 2012, the number of employees working from their own location rose 80%, but recently giants such as Yahoo and Bank of America have pulled back on their work-from-home offerings. With technology only advancing and making the logistical side of distance work easier, why the change of direction?
There is a bigger obstacle than technology at play here, and perhaps it is the same one to which these organizations are throwing up the white flag. The biggest challenge to all virtual teams today is the lack of connectedness between team members. Without creating the connections, a virtual team can't do what it needs to: function as a cohesive unit. Most importantly, a virtual team won't bring true collaborative genius to your organization unless unshakable trust is established. So the question remains: How do you build trust in an environment where shaking hands, watching each other’s expressions or body language cues, and knowing one another's backgrounds, methods and idiosyncrasies just isn't possible?
Put your white flag away and start integrating these seven steps.
1. Attract the right team members.
Strong team builders realize that they are not only looking for a potential team member who has specialized skills and talents, but that they also need to assess the "fit" of the prospective team member with the team as a whole. Skills and quality level of work are important, but the real key to building an exceptional virtual team is to find team members who fit the culture of the team. When distance is not a factor, your pool of potentials opens way up. BE CHOOSEY. Many people will have the right skills—few will have the perfect "fit".
2. Value an innovative mindset.
When you encourage a pioneering approach within your team, you gain value beyond expectation. Teams that are a composite of experts with diverse experience and perspectives have the innate capability to feed off of each other’s innovative ideas and naturally refine and improve concepts into amazing solutions. Create space for everyone to bring ideas, and commit to actually making the good ones a reality! When a team member's ideas are valued, their willingness to believe in that team naturally rises accordingly.
3. Provide meaningful work.
Isolated team members have a need to experience work that challenges them and brings meaning to the tasks they are working on independently of outside influence. When each contributing member of the team is engaged in work that motivates and interests them, they perform better, have a clearer picture of the benefits and invest themselves more completely in that work. It's win-win.
4. Offer variety.
Even if you know you are doing something meaningful, working on the same thing or with the same person day in and day out can get monotonous. It can be excruciating when you're working in an isolated environment. That's why making sure your team members have diverse partnerships, changing assignments, and varying schedules is a solid way to keep your virtual team interested in their work and excited about upcoming possibilities.
5. Allow independence.
A virtual team's mentality should be different than that of a factory line. Every member of the team needs to know that their ideas and opinions will be respected. When you allow individuals to be accountable for coming up with new concepts and innovative solutions that will benefit the team and the company, you're basically giving them a sense of control. As an invested decision-maker, each team member is more likely to feel like a valued contributor who is accountable to the team and to the company.
6. Create focus and an aligned vision.
A risk of allowing independence is that team members who aren't plugged into the values and needs of the organization can bring differing agendas into the mix. It's essential that all team members are committed to the same goals and vision—and that they have complimentary methods of achieving them.
7. Be trustworthy.
If you want to gain the trust of your virtual team, earn it. Being in an environment where a strong work ethic is expected of all team members (including leaders) is imperative. When a participative mindset trickles down from the top and all ideas are respected and valued, trust soars and productivity increases dramatically.
The bottom line is that when you build a virtual team, you need to be sure that each member will be able to see the value placed on them, the value of each other member, and the value of the team as a whole.
A virtual team is more than the sum of its members—it's a culture with a life of its own. When a company and its leaders view their virtual teams in this manner, it reinforces to each member the value being placed on them, and raises their accountability, productivity and satisfaction levels immeasurably. With this approach to virtual team-building, the sky's the limit.