In my previous post, Bringing Your Team Members Closer Together, I looked at how you can help your team members to have a greater sense of proximity, even if they're not co-located or haven't even met each other face to face. Here, and following the recommendations in the article ‘Who Moved my Cube?’ (HBR July/Aug 2011) by Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks, I talk about how to make sure team members still maintain their sense of privacy.
While there is no sure way that you can make your team members have those informal conversations that can lead to new ideas, new collaborations and even new projects, there are things you can do to increase the chances of them happening. One of them is creating a sense of proximity, which I talked about in my previous post. At the other end of the scale is Privacy.
A sense of privacy affects informal conversations in the work place. In a physical environment the challenge is to create spaces that allow people to bump into each other and have a good chat, without feeling exposed. Privacy can be less of a concern in a virtual team where people have more control over who sees their communication. For example, it's more difficult to ensure that you're not overheard in a public space than to make sure that an e-mail arrives only in one person's inbox. (There is of course the issue of some large organisations monitoring employees' communications, but hopefully this is not an issue with you or can be put to the back of your mind. For more on this, read Forbes' article A (Hopefully Needless) Reminder That Skype Conversations On Your Work Computer Aren't Very Private.)
If your virtual team members want to communicate with each other privately or just with you (as opposed to having a group conversation on an online space or conference), they will likely resort to e-mail, or might continue via chat a conversation started in a video conference. As everyone prefers to communicate in different ways, it's good to give team members freedom in this respect. If you want to encourage your team members to work closely together, you will have to be prepared for them to have conversations between them that don't involve you.
However, the fact that different people have different notions of what "boundaries" are means that you will need to give some sort of indication to everyone that they need to respect each other's privacy. The best way of doing this is by role-modelling behaviour that promotes openess but respects people's personal time and life.
For example, if you are having a conversation in a forum-like space, like Yammer or a blog, as the conversation narrows down to you and another team member, then you might want to move it to e-mail or chat. Communicate this in the thread so that people can see that you have “moved to a quiet corner" and that it's fine to do this. If you think the conversation might be relevant to more people, then address this and see if anyone else wants to join you.
Looking at the reverse example, if you've had an exchange with one team member regarding a team project or issue, is it ok to share this in an open space? Again, sharing something with others that can be considered private can reduce people’s perception that privacy matters and reduce the chances of them feeling like they can have informal conversations. (Not to mention the effect this might have on the trust they have on you.) If you have any doubts about whether certain information you had during an informal chat (or formal, for that matter), check with those involved before posting.
Lastly, in the same way as you can define the rules of communication in order to encourage people to interact informally with each other (see the post Bringing Your Team Members Closer Together) you can make sure that people feel like their private time is being respected. Try not to send e-mails during out-of-office hours, avoid scheduling conferences at lunch time and if you are working across different countries, vary the times during which you hold meetings to make sure some people are not always having to give up their free time. Just because they're working in a virtual team, they don't have to feel like they're expected to be available 24 hours a day.