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Five Ideas for Getting Your Virtual Team on the Same Page

By Jonathan Bates

As if leadership wasn’t already challenging enough, so many workplaces being partially or completely remote these days taxes even the best of us.

Having discovered the advantages of virtual teams such as productivity, flexibility and cost savings, many organizations may not ever return to the office in the same way going forward.

Sharpening your skills as a leader of virtual teams isn’t optional any more. The first step is investing in leading in a way that helps your team get it done despite the change in how we get things done today.

Here are five ideas to help you approach the task of getting your virtual team on the “same page.”

Idea 1: Establish a Committed Focus

This seems kind of obvious, right? If everyone “in the boat” is not “pulling their oars in the same direction,” how can you get anywhere? Moreover, announcing the team focus and getting them to “buy-in” to that focus are two different things. Commitment isn’t automatic.

This process is the often-used-but-seldom-done-well term “alignment.” Getting the team aligned to move forward together doesn’t just happen. At best, an unaligned team doesn’t fulfill its potential. At worst, the team fails to deliver its work.

Why? Because we all have perceptions, beliefs, expectations and assumptions operating in our brains, often unconsciously. Some of these help the team to move forward and others stand in the way. We act overtly or tacitly based on this thinking.

For every thought of “we are a great team” held by a team member, there are an untold number more that include, “this will never work,” “here we go again” and “there is no way to get this done with these resources.” Unless you address these, for every step forward there will be a step or two backward.

To counter these, you have to draw them out through conversations. And, just saying “Anybody object?” doesn’t cut it. You talk about these detractors and deflate them. You must conduct team activities that surface these objections in a non-threatening way. You may need help from someone outside the team to accomplish this. Otherwise, what is “under the surface” derails you.

There is huge potential in an aligned team. Why not do the most you can to make that happen?

Idea 2: Demonstrate Trust vs. Control

With your team out of the office and out of sight, you may feel as though you have “lost control.” After being used to having a closer pulse on your team, the virtual environment pulls you out of your comfort zone. You can’t work the way you are used to.

If you are experiencing this feeling, you need to ask yourself, “How much do I trust the team?” If control is your answer to concerns about team trust, you are spinning your wheels.

If you can’t trust them, you need to change. Sorry, but that’s the truth.

So, what do you do about trust? Teams aren’t monoliths, they are made up of people. You trust some people more than others.

For those who you don’t trust much, ask yourself why. Do you have a previous experience with that person shaping your approach to them? Are you making up stories in your mind about their motives? Or, are there some underlying assumptions you may be making about them because of their appearance, age, race, origin or gender?

What if you wiped your mental “Etch-a-Sketch” screen clean? Focus on what can be true instead of what has been true for you until now. Reframe your thinking. What new possibilities could you create?

You may need to have a conversation with each person to understand them better. Start with things like “What is your opinion on this?” and “What is leading you to that conclusion?” and graduate to “What would you like to learn or try?” and “What would I be doing differently as your boss that would make things better for you?”

Trust is built not imposed. Control shuts people down. Trust opens doors.

Idea 3: Give Them the Right Kind of Interaction

People need interaction with one another. It creates the connection that so many people need and are feeling an absence of with most team members being remote.

Just because people are appearing on the “Hollywood Squares” of a Zoom or Microsoft Teams screen doesn’t mean they are connecting. In fact, it can make people feel anonymous even in “plain sight.”

Being in the same room often has an advantage in helping people interact and connect. Our senses pick up more obvious and subtle clues about another person in their presence. However, in-person meetings aren’t always practical, especially with members of global teams. So, the remote work team needs some extra help.

Connection happens when interactions go beyond the surface and people find common ground. When people find how they are similar, they connect.

In most team meetings, discussing the work topics at hand do not necessarily offer those opportunities. In fact, often team work foments differences and disagreements rather than genuine commonalities.

For example, when you ask “Do we all agree on this?”, you cannot be assured that people agree fully or whether they are just “going along to get along.” A better approach before asking for agreement would be to ask each team member, “What do you like about this proposal and what concerns do you have?” This gets below the surface and opens the possibilities for team members to see where they connect with others (either in their “likes” or concerns).

The use of a simple technique like a “Check In” at the beginning of a meeting and a “Check Out” at the end brings a deeper level of connection. Ask each person at the beginning to share on “What is on your mind coming into this meeting that might keep you from being present?” or “What would you like to make sure we accomplish in this meeting?”

The more you make the Check In varied and thought-provoking the better. They may “roll their eyes” but they will still connect. At Check Out, you could ask “What is your take-away from this meeting?” or “What are your thoughts about what we accomplished?”

Idea 4: Know That Morale and Motivation Comes from Their Core Needs

You and the members of your team each possess an inner set of personal “Core Needs” that drive your excitement, energy, engagement, satisfaction and fulfillment. These Core Needs represent experiences like achievement, adventure, collaboration, connection, new experiences, learning and growth, higher purpose, physical challenge, recognition, teamwork and many more.

You, like each member of your team, have your own unique combination of these, typically between 8 and 20. They provide your motivation and morale. Think of them as the fuel tanks that power you.

With the changes in the workplace, your usual ways of getting some of these needs met have been temporarily or permanently disrupted. For example, if you have a strong need for connection, it’s likely that you are feeling unfulfilled by the virtual environment.

Unless you find new ways to fill up your “tanks,” you become demotivated, drained or even burned out. You might meet your need for connection by having more individual conversations with your staff, having more frequent calls with important friends, colleagues and family members or making a point of giving your honest, transparent thoughts and feelings out to others in order to have more real, connected conversations.

The same goes for your team members. To stay engaged, enthusiastic, energized and committed, their fuel tanks need to be well-stocked. Few people have them full all the time, but they need at least some “gas in their tanks.” It takes intentional effort to add to these tanks.

How well do you know the combination of Core Needs possessed by each of your team members? How can you expect to keep them performing if you don’t?

Idea 5: Help Them Support One Another

The more your team knows about what makes things work better for one another, the more they can work together to help each other. Fostering a team culture where they support one another helps to transcend distance, challenges and the virtual workplace.

In reality, most people actually want to help their colleagues and make things a “win-win.” People feel good from helping and appreciate the feeling of being supported and someone “having their back.”

As a leader, you can tap into these desires for mutual help and satisfaction by encouraging the members of your team to talk about what they are challenged by and what helps them. Only when they know what each other needs can they put their effort and attention into contributing to the success of others as well as themselves.

When team members honestly talk about interests and aspirations, others want to give their help. The same is true when they talk about their challenges.

Are you having these conversations with your team? Or, are you focusing only on the baclog and expecting people to hide what is really going on with them and just “get it done?”

In sharing these five ideas, my hope is to share the team development wisdom that getting your virtual team aligned and working well together takes a bit of extra work but has a huge payoff. Can your team afford not to be on the “same page?