Travel bans induced by the credit crunch mean that virtual teams may find it increasingly tough to meet in person. Pradip Gajjar considers two important strategies to help HR to support virtual teams during these turbulent times.
A real scenario: A team leader approaches HR for support. She wants to run a team-building programme and wants to run it virtually. The training provider challenged: "When was the last time the team met face to face?" HR’s answer was: "18 months ago." When asked why they don’t consider running this programme face-to-face, the reply is: "Well,… travel ban!"
Business critical travel has now become the norm. Travel bans mean that face-to-face meetings and team development opportunities are not so readily available. Of course, a learning consultant should challenge you to define what ‘business critical’ really means. But when travel really is banned, there are two strategies which are absolutely ‘business critical’ for HR to support virtual teams: cooperation and communication.
Cooperation is ensuring you maintain trust with the team. Communication – or how well we use technology to connect with virtual team members and develop shared understanding – is the single most critical tool that contributes to trust. The two combine to become the thread of working effectively with a virtual team.
While planning the team-building programme, the training department gathered feedback from team members which merited close examination. Concerns raised across this global team included:
- "At the moment it feels as if everyone is making the best use of challenging situations and not working together as strongly as we were two years ago."
- "There is an immense lack of communication. We work in silos and we don’t know what the others are doing."
- "Each team member tries to survive the chaos rather than using energy and time on collaboration to enhance the power and potential of the team."
- "I think we are far away from what we could potentially accomplish as we do not effectively work together."
Of course, similar issues are being faced by teams in businesses all around the world at present.
"In times of uncertainty, HR will do well to demonstrate reliability with the teams they manage and support."
When working towards solutions to these problems, not only is it good practice to question the team on their understanding of trust and what they are doing to both give and receive trust, but how well we contribute to openness, honesty and respect for the individuals experiencing the turbulence.
In times of uncertainty, HR will do well to demonstrate reliability with the teams they manage and support. HR’s support extends beyond just being a policy driver. In fact, the relationship with teams can be a crucial channel of instilling confidence within a team during their challenging journey.
Reliability is increased by what could be called the ‘2:1 rule’ – two ears, one mouth. Team members need to send signals that they are engaged and listening, paying attention to key messages or individual contributions. In virtual teams we are bereft of body language and other social cues, so being ‘present’ and ‘attentive’ is an important act of respect to team members.
It is important to give a prompt response. Whether through email or voicemail, prompt responses allow you to demonstrate reliability. They can indicate that the message was received, the content considered and understood, and appropriate actions put into place. Attention to the person and attention to detail shows reliability – which breeds trust.
Of course, team leaders need to show reliability in terms of their own availability to support team members. In the current environment, uncertainty can be a barrier to trust so extra attention to communication must be the leader’s focus. In particular, you can communicate to team leaders to ensure they work to establish clarity around team purpose, roles and responsibilities.
The team leader also needs to give attention to the ‘soft’ areas, by introducing more social interaction between the team members, and perhaps increased interdependency to avoid the feeling that they are working in ‘silos’. This will require more frequent team calls and meetings, but also more one-to-ones with team members. The team leader must be a model of ‘2:1 behaviour’ and spend extra time listening, extra time building trust. Ensure we are available to support this process.
"Written communication may miss the point or be wrongly interpreted. Trust depends on the voice."
HR’s reliability is further challenged when there is a need to impart sensitive information. Emailing sensitive messages must be avoided. The clarity, emotion and importance of sensitive messages are best communicated face-to-face or by voice. Written communication may miss the point or be wrongly interpreted. Trust depends on the voice. It’s too easy to send an email. And who said trust and communication are easy?
Weaving the thread of cooperation and communication is critical for virtual teams – HR professionals need to contribute to the process. While teams ride the waves of global uncertainty, this thread will prove essential to their strength and stability and ongoing business delivery.
Pradip Gajjar is a learning consultant at TMA World, a leader in blended global training and talent development solutions, which specialises in enabling people to lead and collaborate across distances and difference. For more information, visit www.tmaworld.com