Learn how from research on virtual teams
In our new Zoom environment, we are all adapting to remote working and learning. And we find that some things actually work better while some things are more difficult.
Building trust is one of the more difficult elements, yet it is one of the most important for effective virtual teams.
In established groups that go virtual, we benefit from trust built over time through in person interactions. But what if you are trying to start new groups, onboard new employees, or build trust in the first year of an academic program that has moved online or is using a hybrid model? The task or content activities make the transition, but the social elements, personal relationships and trust, are more difficult.
Recently I taught an Organizational Behavior class to a group of executives (online instead of in person), and we discussed these challenges. We gained these insights from research on virtual teams.
Sharon Hill and Kathryn Bartol describe Five Ways to Improve Communication in Virtual Teams. The first three, (1) match the technology to the task, (2) make intentions clear, and (3) stay in sync, relate to making the process more effective. The last two, (4) be responsive and supportive and (5) be open and inclusive, relate to building trust.
The authors say that trust must be built by your actions, for example, responding promptly to requests for help, providing substantive feedback, proactively suggesting solutions and keeping a positive and supportive tone. Being open and inclusive also are important, including proactively asking for input from all members of the group.
In Getting Virtual Teams Right, Keith Ferrazzi suggests that leaders should encourage team members to describe their backgrounds, the value they hope to add to the group and the way they prefer to work. He also gives the idea of having each member do a virtual office tour, so everyone in the group can see the workspace of the others. Specific guidelines for interaction help to reduce uncertainty and enhance trust. One fun idea for the start of each meeting is to have each team member look at each other in the gallery view, similar to the opening sequence in the TV show The Brady Bunch (if you are old enough to remember this!).
In our class discussion, participants suggested best practices such as proactively welcoming new members into the group, having virtual meetings where the purpose is solely relationship building and encouraging one-on-one Zoom discussions to get to know each of the new team members.
Virtual teams expert Martha Maznevski suggests that creating a “heartbeat” through periodic face to face meetings relates to more effective virtual teams. When face to face is not possible, it is critical to find new solutions for building relationships and trust. The tips described above may help you to navigate these uncharted waters.
Questions for consideration.
1. What is the trust level in your virtual teams? What actions might help you improve the trust?
2. If you are initiating a new virtual group, do you have a specific plan to build trust from the start?
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