My friend is a good deal older than me, and really old school. So when he said that he thought all this “working from home” stuff was dangerous, I thought he meant because you couldn’t tell if someone was working or not. When I expressed that thought, my friend said this.
“If you have to look over someone’s shoulder to tell if they’re working, at least one of you doesn’t know what they’re doing.”
My friend figures that any competent manager should know whether someone is working or not. He says that if you hire good people and train them right, most of them will do their work diligently and well. I agree. “So, what,” I asked gingerly, “is so dangerous?”
“It’s hard to get to know people,” he said.
When he was a top executive in a Fortune 200 company he spent a lot of time wandering around. He wandered through offices and plants and warehouses. When he wandered, he talked with people. Those conversations were how he developed relationships with people and knowledge of what their work was like.
When you’ve got a virtual team member, you have to work harder to have those encounters that build relationships. That’s important. Researchers at MIT studied what great business teams look like and how virtual teams differed from co-located teams. They found that all great business teams have some things in common, but that building relationships is much harder in a virtual environment.
Great business teams coordinate their work well.
The MIT researchers found that great teams use effective processes to coordinate their work. In fact, virtual teams with more effective processes can outperform co-located teams with less effective processes.
Great business teams communicate well.
On great business teams, expectations are clear and team members can get help when they need it. Both virtual and co-located teams need clear and effective communication to work well.
Members of great business teams provide social support to each other.
Teams are social systems. With a co-located team, it’s pretty easy to make and strengthen the social connections that make a great team. But virtual teams require a conscious effort to create and sustain social bonds between members. That’s harder to achieve when there’s distance between team members, but there are some things you can do.
Ways to increase social support on virtual teams
Have regular team meetings.
Use richer technology, video conferencing instead of just audio, to give team members a better sense of each other.
Make time for sharing things that go beyond work.
Boss’s Bottom Line
When you lead a virtual team, you’ve got to do the same things you do when you lead a co-located team, but you have to put in extra effort to create mutual social support for team members.