Today, a client asked me to help him think through how to build culture in a virtual environment.
The business unit he leads is spread across the world, and employees physically sit inside the country organisation. Communication is through email and phone calls, and meetings occur at most twice a year. Many leaders face this challenge, including those who are leading a functional group (HR, Finance, Marketing) who sit in a local organisation but should also have affinity with the larger functional team. Working arrangements may mean that some team members may work from home, or spend much of their life at client sites.
Culture is so strongly influenced by identity, in the sense that individuals will want to fit in to the group they feel identified with. Peers are an important influence on behaviour, and in a structure like this individuals may be unclear who they really count as their peers. Leading a virtual teams is like living without one of your five senses. One element of human communication, rapport building and influence - the face to face encounter - is missing from the equation.
And, as with those who do not have use of their eyes, or their ears, the other senses have to adapt and become much stronger to compensate. What does that mean in practical terms. Here are three simple ideas I have found help with leading virtual teams and building a common culture.
- Meeting etiquette and format matters a great deal because it serves to bring people closer. A ritual of having everyone say a few words at the start engages everyone (the "check in"). Starting and ending strictly on time (we"ve all been left hanging listening to music on conference calls where the leader is late). Asking people direct questions by name. Having an agenda. Being very clear on the purpose of each call. I think of these as the equivalent of speaking very clearly to someone who is deaf. Virtuality makes the nuance less effective. Everything has to be more deliberate.
- Be human on email. Have you ever tried to read the emails you send out loud? If they don"t sound like you when you talk normally, you are missing an opportunity to engage with your virtual team. When email becomes the main form of human contact, it has to expand to show more of who you are.
- Connect on Facebook. People"s Facebook entries show the person behind the name. For virtual teams, Facebook can become the equivalent to going out for a drink together.
Virtual teams who build strong cultures dedicate time to accentuating the mechanisms they do have available to them to build shared values, norms and connection. Do you have ideas to share based on what has worked for you?