How to Build Relationships in Global Virtual Teams

Clare McNamara and Monica Garcia-Romero

Last month we ran a workshop with 54 senior professionals from all over the world at the WIN Conference in Prague.  We explored how to embrace the power of leading and working in global virtual teams.

We called it ‘From Herding Cats to Flying with Geese.’ Why?

Flying GeeseBecause our experience and research tells us that in leading global teams we often feel that we cannot see or control what our colleagues are doing (cats are rarely controlled by humans). Moreover, we would like to get to a place where, like the geese, our teams position themselves so that the work gets done efficiently and with ease, and people look out for each other and share the load accordingly.

Our number 1 challenge was: Difficulty Building Relationships and we posed the following question:

If we knew it were possible for our teams to thrive in the virtual environment without any face-to-face contact, what might we need to do more of, or differently, and what specifically would that look like and feel like?

The strongest theme that emerged was the importance of planning the building of relationships. In a face-to-face environment this happens more informally and more naturally – we get to know each other by the water cooler and the photocopier and in informal conversations during the day. We tend to believe that we know our colleagues better if we can see them and read body language. So we wanted to look at how we could use intentional social time in virtual teams to get to know and trust one another, and how a lack of visual cues might actually improve our ability to listen deeply.

Here is just some of what emerged from the discussions:

    • Share the social and the personal. Of course it is important that people know what their colleagues can do, but it is just as important from a trust-building perspective that people understand each other as human beings with individual lives and interests. As a leader, share some of your personal life and professional challenges to encourage others to do the same. Think creatively about how you do this, maybe sharing a pod cast or a video: be as visual as you can. In our workshop ice-breaker we asked participants to share both job title and a hobby and in the vast majority of cases most of the time was focused on the latter. People connect with people, not their actions.
    • Be proactive with informal dialogue between you and your team members and encourage conversations between colleagues. How can you replicate the impromptu photocopier discussions that happen frequently in an office? What would a virtual coffee break look and feel like? How could you arrange for everyone to have a treat at the same time (depending on time differences) which could then become a shared experience? Could this be as simple as the delivery of cakes?
    • Make time for introductions and for people to share a little of what is going on for them in meetings. It is very tempting to rush straight to business when the pressure is on, but time spent on common courtesies will reap rewards in terms of engagement. What would happen in a face to face meeting? At the very least you would shake hands and most people would make some effort to put people at their ease. It is even more important to do so when working virtually, where you do not see each other, in order to break the ice help and help people feel relaxed
    • Pay attention to listening. We’ve all heard about the need to be active listeners but let’s face it, when you are not in the same room as someone and your lack of attention is less visible, it is easy for your mind to wander and to neglect this most important skill. So tune in to the emotion and tone of voice, listen to what is being said, and what is not being said, and respond appropriately. Rephrase to ensure you have understood correctly and to check out what else you may feel is going on that is not transparent. If you feel that the person with whom you are communicating is indicating all is well but you sense that in reality it is not, offer your observation and gently probe for what is really going on. Avoid multitasking wherever possible to be as present as possible.
    • Take time to understand communication preferences. We are all wired differently and have optimal ways of working productively.  People are much more likely to go the extra mile if they enjoy the medium in which you are communicating. Just because you like to clear your inbox on a Sunday evening by dispatching a stack of emails, it doesn’t mean that your recipients will feel the same way about opening them. What about giving someone a quick call rather than always relying on email? What if another person prefers Instant Messaging rather than speaking on the phone? The key is to adjust to what you think the other person’s preference is.
    • Be aware of cultural difference, not only in terms of what to expect around norms but also with regard to the impact you have as a product of your own background. Ask yourself, ‘Who am I as a bearer of my own culture?’ and ‘How is my behaviour triggering certain actions, or lack of action, in others?’ Investigate the use of online tools to explore and share cultural differences. Be sensitive but think about how you can inject some humour into the discussion so that people remember what they have learnt.

Follow this blog for future insights into the two other big questions we explored: Feeling Obligated to Work 24/7 and Difficulty Seeing the Big Picture

Clare McNamara and Monica Garcia-Romero are experienced Global Executive Coaches and each own their own coaching practices. They are passionate about virtual teams and led a workshop on the subject at the Global WIN Conference in Prague in October 2013.

©Global Team Coaches 2013

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