How can you work better in virtual teams?

Virtual teams are such a part of modern-day business life that we don’t even think about them anymore. Distance working has become just another part of busy professionals’ lives, like meetings, conf calls, and presentations.

Sure, companies save money by working virtually, but they’re losing out on the human aspects of team work. Collaborators who rarely or never meet are going to have a hard time working together effectively. Add to this the fact the work is done in a foreign language—English—and we can wonder if virtual teams are cost-effective.

In distance teams, it’s not necessarily the distance nor the language that are the biggest obstacles; it’s the lack of relationships. How do you create a connection with people you hardly know, and what’s more, in a foreign language? How can you make sure that your virtual team members feel like part of a true team?

Little messages

Start, for example, by showing team members that you’re thinking of them outside of conf calls. You can send short messages through the company’s chat system, for example. These are simple phrases that don’t necessarily require a response. Here are a few examples, that you can adapt to your colleagues’ situations:

–    Your report was really good last week, by the way.

–    Congratulations on the promotion!

–    I hope you enjoyed your holidays!

–    I heard you were working on a big project. I hope everything’s going well.

The phrases are simple enough to write quickly, and short enough to be understood easily. From their structure, It’s clear that you’re not expecting a response. The aim is just to put a smile on your collaborator’s face.

Short phone chats

For those of you who feel more comfortable in English, why not call your foreign team members for a little friendly chat. It’s a good idea to plan a short time slot that is mutually convenient, taking time zone differences into account, of course.

The beginning or the end of the weekend is an ideal time, because you’ll immediately have an easy conversation subject—the weekend. You don’t need to have a long discussion, just a quick chat. Here’s an example of the kind of conversation you could have:

: Hello, Faisal, this is Sophie from the Grenoble office. How are you?

Faisal: Oh, hello Sophie, good how about you?

Sophie: Good, I’m going to the beach this weekend with my family. I’m really looking forward to it. What about you, do you have any plans?

Faisal: Oh, I don’t know. There’s a festival in Istanbul this weekend. I think I’ll go with my family. It should be nice.

Sophie: Great, well, ok. I just wanted wish you a good weekend.

Faisal: Thanks. You too.

Sophie: Bye.

Faisal: Good-bye.

This type of conversation lasts less than 2 minutes—a small investment, with a big return. It’s the opportunity to learn a little about your colleagues, who are also other human beings, after all. Short phone chats also give you the opportunity to practice English in an informal manner, without much pressure. This later leads to better discussions during conf calls, because the team members will feel more comfortable talking to each other and expressing their ideas.

Planned socializing

Just like in the above situation, you can plan time for small talk also in your conf calls. These short, social conversations naturally happen in face-to-face meetings. Before or after the meeting, we talk about our weekend, the weather, or other personal subjects. In conf calls, however, we tend to skip these subjects, as we’re in such a rush to get on the phone, do business, and hang up so we can start on our next task.

It’s a good ideas to include 6-10 minutes of “planned socializing” in your conf call agenda. This time will be dedicated to just small talk. Here are a few examples of ways to start a conversation:

–   So, how’s the weather in Johannesburg today?

–    So, how’s your week going?

–    So, what are you planning to do this weekend?

To show that you are also considerate of the different cultures of your virtual team members, consider learning about important events in their country. For Americans, this might be Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July. For the Chinese, the Dragon Boat Festival and the Spirit Festival are important events. In India, they celebrate Diwali and Ganesh Chaturthi. With this information, you can start a discussion with something like:

-I know it’s Thanksgiving soon in the US. What do you usually do?

-What are you doing for the Dragon Boat Festival?

-Is it Diwali soon there?

“Planned socializing” gives you the opportunity to have those discussions that may otherwise be lost in conf calls, despite the major role they play in creating camaraderie among team members.

Putting it to practice

Before actually doing any of these, make sure to communicate them to your team members. Otherwise, they may get the wrong idea when you call them just to chat! Explain why you’re setting up these practices. Discuss the objectives and the advantages. According to a study by the Harvard Business School, for example, such practices lead to more collaboration, increased innovation, higher productivity, and greater trust between team members.

Don’t expect everyone to be enthusiastic from the beginning. Start with the most motivated team members and give the system time to spread to other members. Despite the differences that divide your team members, these techniques help bring the team together, even if it’s only virtually.

Christina Rebuffet

Christina Rebuffet has been coaching clients to better communicate with their colleagues from her home country, the United States, since 2004. To help clients have easier, more effective conf calls in English, she recently created The Conf Call Confidence Pack. You can find more tips and resources for communicating better in English at christinarebuffet.com.



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