Virtual Teams and Local Interactions

Tom GibbonsUncertainty, Virtual TeamsLeave a Comment

How we make sense of our experience on teams is a critical element of their success.  As we process our team experiences we may determine that the team is effective/non effective, well or poorly led, adding value or not, something we are happy to be a part of or would rather not be.  As well, making sense of things is a process rather than an instantaneous occurrence.

This process of sense making occurs through interaction, interactions with ourselves through reflection and very importantly, interactions with others.

With co-located teams both the formal and informal interactions tend to be between team members.  After the formal team meeting for example, some team members will go have coffee with other team members or perhaps sit in their workspaces and talk.  They may talk about the team meeting, other things they are involved with at work or out of work, other team members etc.  They may also share their thoughts with people outside their team. Quite a lot of the sense we make of our teams happens in the informal interactions we have with others.  Typically well over 50% of our interactions in the work world will be informal and/or unplanned

With virtual teams most of the informal interactions that we have will not be with our direct team members.  After the team conference call or web meeting each team member goes their separate way.  They will of course be having interactions with others, and part of those interactions will be contributing to the sense making of the person’s virtual team.  The primary way of sense making for virtual team interactions happens locally – even though those local interactions happen with people that may have no relation to the virtual team at all.

Imagine this scenario – You get off a weekly team conference call and there has been some tough discussion about the status of a project the team has been working on.  There was some healthy and needed conflict and a number of things got worked out but it is unclear if everyone is completely on board.  As with most virtual team meetings it is difficult to know if everyone has expressed themselves and their points have been heard.

You hang up the phone and decide to go get a coffee.  You run into an office colleague and ask how things are going.  She says “Oh not too bad but I just had a bit of a run in with my boss because she didn’t let me know about a meeting I’m supposed to go to this afternoon and now I have to move things around.”  “Not a big deal but kind of a pain.”  In trying to identify with your office colleague you keep the small talk going and say, “Yeah, I know what you mean.  I just got off our team call and now I have a bunch of stuff I have to take care of that I wasn’t planning on.”  “Might have been good to have missed that call!”

There is a very subtle and mostly unconscious negative meaning attached to the virtual team in this very ‘normal’ interaction.  And since the person you’re talking to have no context or real interest in your team, that subtle negative meaning is likely not to be offset by a differing perspective, it is owned by you.

If you multiply this scenario a couple of dozen times this subtle negative meaning begins to become a way of thinking about your team.  One that can be very hard to offset in formal team meetings since no one really knows it’s there.

Of course the same could be imagined for a positive meaning as an outcome but there is a strong overall trend, especially in the west to see and hear a negative slant to informal conversations at work.

What is important here is that these informal interactions are inevitable and no leader of a virtual team is able to control them.  What the virtual team leader can do is ask people to pay attention to how they are talking about the team and what it is doing in these informal interactions.  Indeed all of us can do this.  We are trying to bring a greater level of attention and consciousness to how we talk about our teams in our informal interactions.  When we bring this greater level of attention to the content of these interactions we have much greater choice about what we will say, how we will say it, or if we will say anything about our teams at all.

With virtual teams this becomes even more important since no one else on the team has access to what you are saying informally.  Virtual teams tend to have far greater diversity of opinion about ‘how the team is doing’ or ‘what the state of the team is’ than co-located teams because the members have such a greater diversity in their informal interactions.

Keep in mind that bringing more attention to these informal interactions does not equate to being in control of them.  It does mean that you can have different discussions about them and what effect they might be having on the team.  Usually these types of discussions simply do not happen.  With virtual teams it is important for these discussions to happen regularly.

Just listen to yourself for a day or two if you are on a virtual team.  Outside of the formal team interactions, how do you talk about your team and what it’s doing?  After listening to yourself for a couple of days would you choose your words differently?  If so it may have quite an impact on how you and your team actually perform.

Author – Tom

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