Virtual Edge: Today we’re talking to Claire Sookman and she is the CEO and founder of Virtual Team Builders.
Claire: Good morning.
Virtual Edge: Could we start with just a little bit of background about Virtual Team Builders and your background and what the company is all about.
Claire: Virtual Team Builders started about 15 years ago. I was teaching a class on team building and was talking about virtual teams. A student put up his and hand said, “Why are you talking about virtual teams? My team is not here.” From that one comment we created a virtual team building course for virtual teams done virtually. We realized the need was much larger than just team building. Over time, we developed a 7 week virtual certificate program for managers and for team members focusing on building communication from a distance.
Virtual Edge: Okay, could explain a little bit about virtual team building and why it’s necessary, who’s doing it now and what are the issues that you’re really addressing with the business.
Claire: One of the main reasons for virtual teams centers on the differences in time and space for team members. Team members may not be physically collocated, it is not practical or economical to travel to meet face-to-face, companies need to reduce costs and team members may work different shift. Today most teams, workgroups and organizations must work together across different locations and time zones. Companies are seeing the need for this transitions for many reasons including, people can work from anywhere at anytime, people can be recruited for their competencies, not just physical location, expenses associated with travel may be reduced and sometimes eliminated, enhanced productivity – less commuting and travel time, improved morale, employees may be located, anywhere in the world and the global workday is 24 vs. 8 hours. The issues that we are addressing is based on research, the research tells us that the greatest challenge in virtual teams in establishing trust with people you may have never met.
Virtual Edge: Okay, give us some examples of how you would do that.
Claire: In a face to face team, the team members have a shared context, another words the team members have things in common, theses commonalities might be that they live in the same city, they have the same weather, perhaps some of the team members have worked on projects together. In a virtual team, the shared context is the task. When team members have something other than the immediate task to chat about it facilitates communication, trust and collaboration.
Studies tell us that strong relationship links are associated with enhanced creativity, motivation, increased morale, better decisions and fewer processes that are lost. Our certificate program focuses on how to build those strong relationships. Let me give you some examples:
One of the other things that we do is we help build interactivity on a call, so for example, the use of language. How do you use language effectively on a virtual call to keep people engaged?
We also look at technology. What are the best practices for web based technology, teleconferences, email and instant messaging.
Virtual Edge: You mentioned language as one example. So, what would be some specific types of things that you would coach people on?
Claire: The use of language is extremely important on a virtual team. For example, if I was facilitating a meeting and I asked, “does everyone agree”, I would likely get silence as a response. Instead, it is much more effective to say, I’d like to hear from each person. Let’s begin with Claire...
Virtual Edge: Let’s talk a little bit about what you see as the future and where do you see the opportunities and the need for virtual team building going over the next few years?
Claire: More than ever before, private and public sector enterprise organizations are looking at telework to reduce infrastructure costs, increase employee well-being, productivity and optimize service delivery. Our team supports them through a comprehensive approach which includes; conducting a telework organizational feasibility studies, facilitate awareness seminars on remote work, evaluate existing programs, develop a corporate policy, develop selection tools, provide technological consultation for hardware solutions and of course training.
Virtual Edge: Yeah, I think that does and it brings up another question that when I was looking at some of the research and some of the resources that you have in your website, which are very good, I saw that distractions during virtual meetings were tremendously high. I think 70% in the study that you had on there. 70% were doing some other unrelated work.
Claire: Yes distractions can be a significant problem on a virtual team.
Virtual Edge: And then there was a list of other things beyond that. But, that’s obviously a very high number and it’s not probably all that different than meetings, face to face meetings with people on their computers and whatnot. But, what are some of the things that you can do to address that?
Claire: Well, there’s a couple of things you can do. One thing you can do is ask people to stay off mute, this will help minimize the multi-tasking, keep people engaged, every 10 minutes ask a question, seek a comment or conduct a poll, another thing you can do is let people know at the beginning of the meeting that you will be asking someone to recap the meeting but do not tell them who it will be until the end of the meeting. This has to be agreed upon by the team also you can rotate roles so that people are either the scribe, time keeper or the facilitator. Virtual teams also need rituals and routines established.
Virtual Edge: So, this is really, I think, one of the most important topics, too. So, please continue on that.
Claire: Virtual teams need more structure. They need rituals and routines. For example, at the beginning of your meeting and as part of your agenda spend 5 minutes where you can check in with each other on a personal level. What that does is build that shared context, which is what I spoke about earlier, that commonality. The reason why that’s so important is because if you have the commonality, that shared context, then you’re more likely to collaborate. Without collaboration projects are more likely going to fail.
We know that building that shared context takes time but the benefits for the team are huge.
Virtual Edge: Is that including things like just having an unstructured chat about, “What did you do last weekend?” and, “How are you doing?” and just kind of a general socializing, or is it more structured?
Claire: It actually needs to be more structured, especially when a team initially comes together. One example of a simple ice breaker is to ask people to email something to the meeting facilitator about themselves which is different and unique. I’ll give you some examples. I had one person who spun himself in a dryer and lived to tell the tale. I had somebody else who was a backup singer for Whitney Houston, and I had somebody else who was dating somebody who was then on death row.
Virtual Edge: Ok then..
Claire: At the beginning of the meeting you read one of them out and ask people to guess who is the owner of the statement is, then you give that person 1 minute to elaborate. This helps build that commonality. It’s easy to do, there is no cost involved and people start looking forward to it.
Virtual Edge: Are there similar types of things that you do on a professional level? The kind that gets a little bit into the socializing and relationship building.
Claire: Could you elaborate on that question? I’m not sure what you’re asking.
Virtual Edge: Sure, so, are there any techniques where you’re sharing backgrounds and skills and expertise that the group might have that both helps let people know that there’s different talent and resources on the team and in the group as well as helping to build that trust and the communication channels?
Claire: In a virtual team it is important to determine, who knows what, what skills do people have. I have just finished a book on team cohesion exercises, in the book we have a number of exercises that help team members determine the skills of the people they work with.
Virtual Edge: So, what do you do in a situation where you have somebody on the team that is just kind of the dark cloud or the challenge and just kind of brings the momentum and the spirit the level of collaboration and involvement down?
Claire: We need to understand who’s on our team. We need to understand the people who you might call the “dark clouds.” We use a behavioral assessment called the DiSC which helps us identify the strengths and challenges of people on our team.
Virtual Edge: Okay.
Claire: The DiSC is a good first step, another critical element on a virtual team is to create rules of engagement or norms of behavior which the team creates. If there is still a problem with the dark cloud then you will need to have a one on one discussion with the person to find out what’s going on.
Virtual Edge: Could you give us one other technique perhaps to encourage collaboration?
Claire: The most effective way for a virtual team to encourage collaboration is build relationships and that means to incorporate team building activities into meetings, that means as a leader to make yourself human, it means to communicate often and clearly and it means creating rules of engagement.
Virtual Edge: Another question, I think you mentioned Claire likes to be direct, so, the question is, I get on your website. I saw that there was a statistic there that said that among those companies that offer at least some training, only 7% believe their program was either very or extremely effective. So, talk a little bit about that.
Claire: Companies need to target their training to the needs of the virtual team members.
We conduct a needs assessment which takes 90 seconds to complete. Then we’ll interview the participants to find out what their concerns are. Based on that information we will customize our programs to meet the specific needs of the client.
Virtual Edge: So, is it more an issue of how they’re trained?
Claire: There are two aspects. To make the training successful the training company needs to understand the needs of the client and the team. Secondly, If the team is working virtually than the company should consider doing the training virtually.
Virtual Edge: There was another item I found on your website that I was going to ask you about. Well, in the mean time, I’ll have to think about what that was, but you mentioned the whole issue of video versus audio. Is there, when you’re talking about a virtual meeting, is there significant difference in the effectiveness of the meetings with the addition of video, say a tele-presence or peer video conferencing versus audio?
Claire: When I first started Virtual Team Builders, I thought all our clients were going to use video conferencing. Companies may have video conferencing technology at one site but not sites because of the cost associated with it. Now we offer training one of three ways, in-class, synchronously (webconferencing) or asynchronously (recorded). Certainly by seeing facial expressions and body language it gives you more of a richness. Can you still build team cohesion without it. I believe you can.
Virtual Edge: Now, I guess one thing…I think what I was going to ask you about is, is there any data out there or studies that show that virtual meetings may in fact be more effective than face to face meetings?
Claire: I would not be able to site a particular study, I can tell you from our experience with our clients that virtual meetings can be equally as effective as face to face meetings at a fraction of the cost.
Virtual Edge: One of the other questions I had is, and I think you brought this up earlier, was, there are definitely some things that you do not want to do or problems that you might encounter. Could you talk a little bit about things to stay away from and things that could have a negative impact on the trust and relationship building that you’re trying to achieve?
Claire: There are quite a few trust busters that can have a negative impact on trust and relationship building. Make sure you don’t withhold information, another words keep people in the loop. Be careful about excluding people from activities and make sure your communication is open and honest.
Virtual Edge: You mentioned measuring trust. How would you measure trust?
Claire: The issue here is if you value trust then you might want to consider measuring it. One company measured trust in their performance review. This may not be appropriate for all organizations or for certain cultures. Here are some items that they put in their performance review
Virtual Edge: Sure.
Claire: Is the person realistic? Are they discrete? Do they establish mutual trust and respect in dealing with others? Do they behave in accordance with his/her own words? Do they take responsibility for their own mistakes? Do they commit to honesty and trust in every facet of behavior? Do they demonstrate ethical conduct?
Virtual Edge: Could you ask…is there a direct way to ask what the level of trust is amongst the team?
Claire: You would have to define trust first. We ask people to define trust and we get many different responses. The point is that if you value trust then what are you going to do with it?
Virtual Edge: Great, thanks very much for your time.