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Virtual Realities

by Deborah Rinner, Vice President, Tero International

When technology and distance are the two terms we think of when we think of our team environment, chances are we are only meeting virtually. How does a virtual team differ in its experience from a team that meets face to face?

The exploration of team experience in a virtual environment begins with something difficult to create that is easily lost. Trust.

Although trust is a foundation for any relationship, it plays a particularly important role in virtual team dynamics.

Here are five key considerations for virtual teams - and trust.

1. Figure out the kind of team you need to reach your goal.

There are function teams, which address business operations and are ongoing. There are project teams which form to work on a specific project over time and have a clear objective, and there are task forces, teams that meet to accomplish a short term goal like a recommendation for a particular issue.

Knowing your purpose and recognizing scope is the first step to forming a team that understands its accountability. This allows a team to set parameters and begin to communicate in the mode(s) most useful to achieve the goals and support the individuals.

2. Identify the cultural drivers and the effect on process.

What cultural groups are represented on your team? What are the values of each? Where do the team members line up as to communication style, orientation to task, view of power, individualism or group perspective, and time orientation? Knowing the cultural variances will help you set inclusive guidelines. Dialogue best practice - leveraging the differences to create processes that instill trust.

3. Give some thought to values and mindset. Make a team charter.

What do we as team members need to value to ensure we reach our maximum potential? What kind of mindset will be most conducive to reaching our goal? Terrence Brake, author of Where In The World Is My Team identified nine personal qualities that prepare the soil for trust amongst team members in a virtual environment. Respect, Openness, Transparency, Integrity, Empathy, Caring, Confidence, Congeniality, and Reciprocity. What do these mean to you? Are they demonstrated differently by your teammates?

Creating a charter specifying the roles and responsibilities necessary to achieve goals as well as traits to ensure the demonstration of supporting behaviors is essential. Aspects such as how we handle conflict, how we create predictability and adaptability, and how we maintain accessibility is worth taking the time to determine.

4. Are you dealing with risk? Is what you are trying to accomplish complex?

Risk and complexity can unseat many a noble idea or action. If your goal involves either, you will need to over-communicate in order to maintain trust. What does that mean? Every step of the process will need to be communicated well, opened for discussion, clarified, and checked for understanding with all team members. Your team will benefit from one-on-one opportunities to share, as well as opportunities to weigh in with the group. Leadership will need to make sure all teammates understand the need for consensus on decisions and security in direction.

Contingency plans as safety nets will allow the team to trust the process, the proposed product, and each other more readily.

5. Be willing to go back to square one.

Virtual teams require more trust than face-to-face teams, as the ability to misunderstand others is greater when remote. If you see problems cropping up, circle back to discussions around how best to communicate in order to give and get trust. Use some team time to reformulate. If you don't, your team will not reach true goal potential.

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