One of the most difficult things about working in a virtual team is that you don’t regularly get to see the other team members. (Although, let’s face it, some people think of it as a blessing!) More importantly, if you can’t see them, it becomes more difficult to know what they’re working on or how they’re progressing. They’re not always “visible” which can lead to a sense of isolation in the team and a loss of trust.
When we share the same physical workspace, we pick up on cues about the work that people are doing and about who else in the team or organisation they’re talking to. We also pick up on nuances about their behaviour which make us feel like we know them as a colleague and a person, reducing our sense of uncertainty in our relationship with them.
In virtual teams, all this becomes more difficult as we rarely see each other. In some cases, we might not even share the same “office hours” and so we lose the feeling that we are working with other people. This can lead to a sense of feeling disconnected from other team members and hence, being disconnected from valuable resources. It also decreases our sense of accountability to others.
Think about it, if you’re in a co-located office, you might go past someone’s desk and see they have a spreadsheet up on their screen; or you might pick up something from a phone conversation that tells you they’re talking to a client; or you might see that someone is at their desk and so you know you can go and ask them for those numbers they finished the night before.
This is what I mean by being “visible”. You have a sense of where someone is at with their work or your collective project. You can see whether they are immersed in a task or not, and so you can sense whether you can interrupt them for a second. You can feel whether they are “there”, working for your team and that gives you a sense of camaraderie.
The Effect on Trust
In “Facilitating Trust in Virtual Teams: the Role of Awareness” the author Chyng-Yang Jang quotes “awareness deficit” as being one of the communication problems facing virtual teams. This awareness deficit is described as “the lack of knowledge about the current state of distant teammates’ work related to the group project.”
This awareness seems to be less of a problem (and I highlight “seems”, as it might not always be the case) in co-located teams, where “spontaneous connections, informal encounters and peripheral observations” all contribute to us feeling like we know what our team members are up to.
Promoting Awareness in Virtual Teams
In a virtual team this sense of awareness is hard to achieve, but it’s not impossible. We just need to think about it differently. By being “visible” in a virtual team, I don’t mean that we carry out our work in front of a camera (although there are remote teams that do so), but that our work is visible, our updates are shared and that our availability status is obvious to everyone else.
This might be happening by chance already, but most of the time, we have to consciously address our level of visibility. Depending on the kind of virtual team you run, you will expect different levels of visibility, which will in turn depend on commitment to your project and/or organisations (ranging from full time employment to occasional freelancing) and the interdependence of your tasks. For example, a team creating a new product might need everyone to be highly visible during the creation and launch phases. But once the product goes to market, there might be less of a need for everyone to continue to be connected, as the work load decreases and some people move onto other projects.
The nature of the team will also affect how visible people are expected to be. Those working for a start up consisting mainly of freelancers, for example, will know that the time dedicated to the company is limited as team members have other work going on. They will expect a lower level of visibility.
Towards Team Visibility
“Visibility” is rarely addressed in virtual teams. It can be an elusive concept but there are some questions we can ask ourselves to increase it, when we’re forming a new team or if we feel like there is a breakdown in communication or engagement.
- How often should we check in with each other?
- Do we know where the project is at every stage?
- How do we find out if there are new developments?
- Do we all have access to updated information?
- How do we know whether someone is available to answer a question or a request for information within a short time frame?
- How do we know that someone is free for a quick phone call/chat? (I’m not going to include a quick exchange of emails here, as I’m advocating for efficient processes.)
These are all questions that can help shape your communication processes when answering them with your team. It’s important that as you design your processes, you think about what would fit people’s current work patterns or if you will need to change the way in which you currently work.
Once you have considered what aspects of “visibility” would help your team and when you have assessed the different tools and processes available, here are some things you might want to consider.
Updated Chat/Skype status
If your team members spend most of the day on the computer, they can have their chat/skype status set to give everyone else an idea of what they’re working on (of course confidentiality is to be considered depending on work) and whether they are happy to be contacted. (To hear how Saros Consulting use this function, listen to this interview.)
If your team consists of people working across departments in your organisation, freelancers or external collaborators, maybe a weekly update is an easy way of staying visible. Pick the best way of doing this. If you’re a team of more than three people, I wouldn’t recommend using email. Find an online platform where people can post their updates and others can comment on them. If you can find one with a Like feature, that means that people can show that they’re read it with the Like feature even if they don’t have something to add to it.
An online platform where people can make comments is very useful. For example, one of your team members may write:
“I’ve finally arranged a talk with Mos who’s going to talk me through the new platform they’re using.”
If you’re interested in this, you can comment:
“Well done on persisting! Can you spare 10 minutes afterwards to let me know your thoughts on it?”
You never know whether what you’re doing is of particular interest to someone else or when it will help them to do their job faster or better next time.
Visibility addresses various aspects of working together that affect how we work with others and our own motivation to do a great job. Self-determination theory suggests that our motivation to do something is affected by our feeling of autonomy, competence and relatedness. Feeling like we’re part of a team definitely falls under “relatedness” and knowing that we have the resources to make our job better (our team mates and their information in this case) also contributes to our feeling of competence.
Add to this the fact that trust (which is linked to awareness) is a predictor or moderator of group performance, organisational citizenship behaviour, effort level and job satisfaction and you can see how visibility is not something you can leave to chance in your team.