How to Promote Collaboration in a Virtual World

Because We’re All Working in Virtual Environments Now.

“Great things in business are never done by one person; they’re done by a team of people,” said Steve Jobs, capturing the importance of collaboration and the collective pursuit of a shared mission. Indeed, our greatest successes and accomplishments are rarely the result of solo efforts, but through the combined efforts of a group. As Reid Hoffman put it,

“No matter how brilliant your mind or strategy, if you’re playing a solo game, you’ll always lose out to a team.”

And yet, we continue to create work environments that discourage our ability to collaborate effectively. Remote offices, virtual reporting, and flexible schedules are great benefits, but they rarely help us to collaborate better. And they lead to a more ineffective overall company.

Or so the typical story goes.

There’s no shortage of published opinions on the benefits and drawbacks of virtual teams. And they all largely say the same things. They provide greater opportunities for focus, but less for collaboration. They give people more freedom, yet inhibit feelings of belonging.

It all comes down to the idea that as distance increases, collaboration and belonging decrease accordingly.

Which is true. But only if we let it be.

“To make virtual teamwork work this well, you’ll need to move your team to a new set of behaviors, not just to a new generation of technology, with human engagement as the first priority.” — Keith Ferrazzi

What team would you consider to have better collaboration — one located on that’s spread across different floors of the same building or one that is spread across the country?

The idea that distance has as an inverse affect on collaboration would say that those in the same building should score far better. Yet studies have shown that teams located on different floors often demonstrate less collaboration and team unity than those spread across a city, a country, or even a continent.

Which makes sense if you realize that it’s not the distance that matters, but how you manage that distance.

Teams with members on different floors rarely consider themselves virtual teams. And if they don’t consider themselves virtual teams, they’re less likely to address the challenges that even these minimal distances can have.

Conversely, if you have a team that’s dispersed across the country, you’re more likely to recognize these obstacles and account for them. You’re more likely to make those extra efforts to ensure frequent communication and coordination.

We tend to view virtual teams as a binary choice — a team is either virtual or it’s not. People are either colocated or they’re not.

But in reality we’re all part of virtual teams — just to different degrees. Technology allows us to treat everyone as a virtual teammate, regardless of where they sit. It’s easier to send an email or instant message than walk down a hallway. It’s easier to text someone than take the time to speak with them face-to-face.

While many of our technological advancements improve individual efficiency, they become a crutch to avoid effectively collaborating with people.

Our belief that virtual work is limited to time spent outside the office neglects the tendency to allow technology to insulate us from our teams. Which leads us to underestimate the challenges we face in developing and reinforcing a culture that focuses on collaboration.

So the question isn’t whether you have a virtual team or not, it’s what degree of virtual work is present in your team.

And how do you plan to account for the challenges this will create?

“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” — Henry Ford

One of the biggest challenges in managing a virtual team is making sure that people have a shared sense of belonging. And not surprisingly, one of the biggest obstacles to building a collaborative environment is that same sense of belonging.

A strong sense of belonging helps us feel valued based on our differences and leads to better engagement and productivity among team members. It also better helps people cope with job stress, as they know that they have the collective support of the team behind them.

But when technology allows us to collect updates and receive work without ever seeing someone’s face, it’s easy to fall into an out-of-sight, out-of-mind trap. Whether people sit in a different continent or a different room, it often doesn’t matter — we need to protect against this tendency to fall into our technological shells.

It doesn’t take a secret formula or some high-priced management strategy — just a dedicated effort to connect and show people that you appreciate them. Which often comes down to asking yourself the following questions, regardless of where your team is located.

“Men of genius themselves were great only by bringing all their power to bear on the point on which they had decided to show their full measure,” wrote the Dominican friar Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges in his slim, but influential volume, The Intellectual Life. And indeed, the ability to maintain uninterrupted focus is one of our greatest tools — and one of the best benefits in working virtually without a constant influx of distractions.

Yet with our influx of technological connections, our ability to reach out and interrupt people at our own convenience has never been easier. This makes it easy to gather updates and keep tabs on people, but it comes with a cost to everyone who actually needs to complete the work.

Few people can accomplish great work amidst constant interruptions. To develop strong technical work, whether it’s software code, engineering design, or a business proposal, people need sustained periods of concentration to develop and execute their vision.

This doesn’t remove the need to gather updates and understand a project’s progress. But by establishing these protocols in advance, it lets people plan around them to maximize their productivity. And by giving people the flexibility to schedule uninterrupted blocks of time, you show them that you value their priorities and appreciate the difficulty that goes into their job. As Paul Graham wrote in his ingenious Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule,

“Since most powerful people operate on the manager’s schedule, they’re in a position to make everyone resonate at their frequency, if they want to. But the smarter ones restrain themselves, if they know that some of the people working for them need long chunks of time to work in.”

A common concern in managing virtual employees is how you know they’re actually working. Some companies elect to install webcams and put their people under constant surveillance.

Another is to just look at their work.

But how do you know if someone’s working if you can’t see them, might ask — if you’re the type of person who argues with an online article. Well, the same way you know someone’s working if you can see them. By looking at their work.

It’s easy to assume that if you can’t see people working, they’re slacking off. But if they’re consistently delivering high-quality product, does the time spent getting there really matter?

Too many people fall into the trap of measuring time spent at a desk. It’s easy. It’s straightforward. And it’s quantifiable.

Yet as a metric, it rarely correlates to a meaningful relationship to the quality of someone’s work. Which is all anyone should really care about.

If the goal is to encourage belonging, there are few practices better than letting people know you trust them to deliver a high quality product. When you give people this trust, they typically rise to show you they deserve it. When you don’t, they usually respond in kind as well.

Focus on the final product and let someone else waste their time worrying about time at a desk. It not only builds loyalty and belonging, but you likely have better things to do with your time. As Jason Fried and DHH wrote,

“The only way to know if work is getting done is by looking at the actual work. That’s the boss’s job. If they can’t do that job, they should find another one.”

Many employees receive their assignments, deliver their work on time, and then only hear back from their manager when he or she needs more information, or has another assignment ready.

When we see people in person, we’re quick to offer compliments or praise a job well done. But when we’re receiving work virtually, it’s much easier to just move onto the next challenge.

This out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality fails to show people that we appreciate the quality work they perform. It also discourages belonging, since people are much more likely to form a connection when they feel recognized and appreciated.

Set aside time each week to recognize work that’s worth recognizing. And doing so publicly not only encourages team-building and belonging, it sets a positive standard for everyone.

Another tactic to improve this tendency is to change from a mentality of considering, what’s my team’s last award, to one that considers, what’s my team’s next award. Forcing yourself to consider the next award makes you assess the ongoing work across your team and consider the level of performance that’s worth recognition. It creates a more proactive mindset towards recognition and protects against the tendency to simply move on to the next challenge.

Remember that if we don’t tell people that we appreciate them, they’ll naturally assume the opposite.

“Cooperation is the thorough conviction that nobody can get there unless everybody gets there,” said Virginia Burden. Yet how many of our own systems reward collective success over individual success.

Most teams set up performance measures around individual success. And people quickly learn that, in an environment of limited resources, for them to win, others need to lose.

But this zero-sum mentality doesn’t promote belonging — it encourages internal competition and cultivates an environment where people will look out for themselves above everything else.

A top benefit of having virtual teams is that you can leverage diverse skills and expertise that’s not limited by location. Yet this benefit is quickly lost if team members fail to work collaboratively for the good of the group.

Belonging comes from having a shared mission. It comes from having employees recognize the overall purpose. And it comes from understanding both how their contributions relate to it, as well as those of the rest of the team.

Encouraging this collective mission, and recognizing people who work cooperatively in support of it, promotes the collaboration that causes everyone to increase the overall team’s performance. It helps people recognize when to make trade-offs for the good of the team, even if it isn’t in their own best interest. An environment where everyone is looking out for the team’s success will always trump one that promotes internal competition.

Remember that when individual victory is most important, one option is for people to elevate their performance. Another is to take down their competitors. And we all know which one’s easier.

“Why do you form a team? Because teamwork builds trust and trust builds speed,” Russel Honore said. Yet it’s often when we’re in most need of speed, amidst emergent issues and working under tight deadlines, that we ignore the need to cultivate collaboration and belonging.

It’s often in these moments — when we’re rushed and running forward with our head down — that we’re in the strongest need for collective wisdom and the support of our teams. It’s in these moments that we need to double down on the need to encourage belonging and leverage collaboration across our teams.

Crises and adversity doesn’t create bad teams — it exposes them. The foundation that you create and cultivate every day will define how you respond when issues arise that test your team’s loyalty and their ability to work together.

Making an effort to prioritize collaboration and belonging isn’t limited to dispersed and remote teams. We all have degrees of virtual work, regardless of where our teams sit — and consequently we all have barriers to collaboration that we need to address.

As our technological means of communicating become ever more prevalent, it’s unlikely that we’ll continue to foster cultures of belonging without a concentrated effort. Yet as these skills become more rare, those teams that do develop them will have an even larger advantage. As the great Charles Darwin put it,

“It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”

Thank you, as always, for reading. Feel free to share your own tips and suggestions — I’d love to hear from you. And if you found this helpful, I’d appreciate if you could help me share with more people. Cheers!

Written by

Enemy of the Status Quo.

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