The ability to work from anywhere may be one of the most attractive aspects of virtual teams, but it is also one of its most dangerous. More often than not, virtual teams experience disengagement and low morale because they have not adapted their communication style and practices to the virtual environment, giving employees with physical proximity the advantage over those working remotely.
In this case study, we will look at one consulting firm’s challenges with fostering a culture of inclusion for its remote and geographically dispersed employees, and how they implemented best practices to improve morale and productivity.
Virtual Team Background: Kristen King, Advocates for Human Potential, Inc.
For over seven years, Kristen has been a remote employee for AHP, a national consulting firm with offices in four states and close to 100 employees – 20 of whom work remotely in approximately a dozen more states. As the company grew larger and increasingly relied on virtual work, it became more and more challenging to foster a sense of inclusion and equality across offices and between remote and in-office staff.
This is an issue common to many virtual teams, and many of them simply accept feelings of dissatisfaction as part of the job.
“Some meetings – even company-wide meetings had people in the head office gather in their boardroom, and everyone else would log in through web conference either in groups or individually. – If you weren’t physically in the main meeting room, it was often really difficult to feel like you could fully participate.”
Virtual Team Building Challenge: Different Location, Different Rules
For in-person communication, we use body language, eye contact, facial expressions and gestures. In a virtual environment, those tools are absent. When some team members are co-located and leverage those tools, it creates an immediate disadvantage for remote participants.
Often, teams will even mix-and-match participation models in the same meeting. Employees in the “primary” location sit in the boardroom while another team shares a single screen and speakerphone (with only one employee controlling the web conference tool), while others dial in individually. These setups lead to a variety of alienating consequences, including:
- inability to determine who is attentive
- difficulty hearing, without others realizing
- whispering among co-located colleagues distracts remote participants
- less participation by remote participants
“When some people are co-located and others aren’t, it’s like running a race with your ankles tied together People in one room are nodding at each other, while those dialing in are kind of forgotten about.”
The Solution: Level the Playing Field
Working with Virtual Team Builders, Kristen and the AHP team came to understand that if even one employee joins a meeting individually, then everybody does – even those who could easily share a speakerphone in the boardroom. AHP staff began to rely on web conferencing features like the raised hand, chat boxes, polls and workflow tools like SharePoint, with positive results including:
- increased sense of inclusion
- virtual communication that more closely replicated in-person dynamics
- increased engagement among all employees
- full participation
“When everyone shares, sees and provides feedback in the same way, it transforms the ‘us versus them’ dynamic. Remote employees stop feeling like an afterthought, and all contributions are equally valued. When we started to embrace a new form of virtual meetings where everyone participated the same way, all of a sudden people were saying, ‘This is so much better than before; now I really feel like part of the team.’”
Virtual Team Building Takeaway
By embracing the level playing field, including when delivering webinars to clients, Kristen and AHP quickly came to appreciate the value of ensuring that all participants have the same experience. Even where multiple colleagues share a single room, they increasingly lean towards the expectation that each participant logs into the meeting on their own computer to ensure equal access to the web conference tools.
“I’ve seen this philosophy penetrate some of our smaller teams in particular. Now, many use Skype every time, and they rely more on SharePoint documents for shared version control rather than one ‘document keeper.’ Externally, we really encourage our clients – presenters and participants – to join webinars individually, and we see the benefits there, too, in terms of quality, engagement and an overall enjoyable experience. Now that we know how well virtual teams can work, we’re never going back.”
Do you have a virtual team? Register for our upcoming courses (accredited for Leadership PDUs) to learn valuable virtual skills, or contact us to inquire about a virtual assessment of your team and its unique needs.