November 7, 2013

Don't be Max Headroom with your virtual team

Do you recognize this guy? It's Max Headroom, a popular TV character in the mid 80's billed as the "world's first computer generated TV host".

Years before the Internet, Skype and YouTube, here was this charismatic, virtual man on our TV screens. He was seen only from the shoulders up, cracking wise in a bombastic way, while his image froze and skipped chaotically and his voice modulated strangely out of sync with the video. Here, watch a few clips for the context. (Humor me, I do have a point...)

Every time I hold a online meeting with my virtual team - all of them sitting in one conference room, me on my webcam - I picture my face on the big screen in their conference room and think, "from their perspective, I am Max Headroom." And that's not just because today's video conferencing technology still freezes at the worst possible times and there are audio glitches in every meeting. No, it's because while video conferencing with virtual teams members is lightyears better than "just" an email or a social stream comment or a phone call, it is still "just" virtual.

And virtual is not real life. Don't get me wrong, I am a big user of and believer in any and all the technology and tools that allow people to work flexibly. Flexibility to balance personal and professional comments or to work in a location appropriate for the task at hand, allows your team to give their best and is a must for today's workforce.

But as a team leader, step one is connecting with your team. That connection needs to be a personal, human one, not a virtual one. HBR's article Connect, then Lead explains that is our human desire to affiliate and be understood that drives this. Team members need to feel connected with their leaders in order to do their best work.

A virtual team environment, especially one where you, as the leader, are virtual, makes achieving this needed connection very challenging. I have learned you need to be both patient and deliberate.

Be Patient
I am biased for action, so this one is hard for me. Having led virtual teams for many years, and most recently teams where I was a virtual leader, this is a key lesson learned.

Authentic connection takes time so you must allow the necessary time for relationship building. People are looking for areas of commonality and consistency in behavior, and that requires multiple and varied kinds of interactions, both formal and informal, over time. So in situations where there are significant time zone differences that limit the available hours for meetings, conversation and interaction, you have to go into that situation knowing you'll need to go slow initially in order to go fast later. Like nine women can't make a baby in one month, you can't always accelerate achieving needed connection.

That being said, there are actions you can take to help build connective tissue with each interaction. And if you're deliberate about applying these tools, it will help to build and sustain good, virtual teams

Be Deliberate
Leaders of virtual teams must also be deliberate within their virtual interactions. I've learned a few tricks over the years. And when I saw this HBR Management Tip on building trust in your virtual team I had to smile, because it's one I use every day -- create forums for personal interactions to take place even in formal meetings. I always kick off online meetings with a personal anecdote designed to start a short non-work conversation. This "water-cooler-talk" helps to lighten the mood and remind everyone that we're a team of people collaborating.

Another deliberate move is to schedule and keep regular 1:1 meetings with every one of your virtual team members, not just your direct reports. You will meet and interact with your direct reports more often, but you still need to build connection with the entire team.

Don't be Max Headroom
In virtual teams, personal connection is still critically important. While technology can move us closer to real life interactions, there is still the danger of being "just" Max Headroom to your virtual team: a virtual, talking head they see on the conference room screen every week, not a living, breathing leader of a team they are proud to contribute to. Think about how you are being perceived by your virtual team and be mindful of the time needed to create connections.