How to Coach Virtual Teams
The world of teams has changed dramatically over the years, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the proliferation of virtual teams. The availability of communications technology to connect people over global distances instantaneously has made it possible for teams to work together in ways that simply weren’t possible a decade ago. From the organization’s point of view, creating virtual teams has a number of clear benefits. The choice to assemble a virtual team gives organizations more flexibility to select the right membership for a particular team, regardless of where team members are located. When it comes to a team coaching process, eliminating travel provides significant savings, most importantly in the precious resource of team member time.
“The availability of communications technology to connect people over global distances instantaneously has made it possible for teams to work together in ways that simply weren’t possible a decade ago.” -Phillip Sandahl
Creating virtual teams makes sense, and it comes with significant challenges. Virtual teams, without the in-person connection and the possibility of more spontaneous, less structured meeting opportunities, have a more difficult task when it comes to working together effectively. Reflecting on our team-effectiveness model, virtual teams are often equipped to efficiently handle what we refer to as the Productivity side of the model. It shows up in the functional aspects of being a team: establishing clear goals, holding accountability, maintaining alignment, and so on. But little attention is given to the relationship infrastructure that creates Positivity. For work groups, that balance of emphasis may be perfectly suitable. For true team performance, we believe the same balance applies to virtual teams as we see in high-performing teams that work in-person.
The rapidly expanding world of virtual teams means that more and more, the coaching we do with teams will need to align with the special challenges of that environment. One of the first challenges is the technology itself and all the usual quirks and problems, such as getting the technology to work smoothly for everyone, the impact of local internet availability and signal strength, and the enormous variety of devices to accommodate. In spite of the irksome disruptions that often happen, team members are now reasonably familiar with the form. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, it’s a form that is well practiced for its functional application, not to create stronger team dynamics.
Team size can be more of an issue for virtual teams partly because of the environment. Gathering more than eight or 10 people on one call is cumbersome and starts to limit the ability to have engaged interaction. Also worth noting: a geographically dispersed team typically means it is also a multicultural team, which brings another layer of potential challenges for the virtual team. With teams spread around the globe, it can also be a challenge simply to find overlapping schedules when people can be awake and reasonably alert.
In spite of the challenges, it is possible to have effective team coaching sessions in this format, but the process requires special considerations, commitment, and training for the team. There needs to be a very conscientious shift in mindset and practice from “conference call,” used for everyday information sharing and planning purposes, to “team coaching session,” consciously designed to build trust and connection and develop new skills for working together across vast distances.
Assuming the question of reliable technology is answered—not an easy assumption to make—here are seven essentials that will make success of a virtual team coaching session more likely.
- Train the team: a team coaching session is very different from the standard staff or team meeting. For team coaching, the intention and attention are at a different, more heightened level. This requires being present, tuning in, and listening in ways that may not even be necessary in the typical online meeting where multitasking is commonplace.
- Emphasize that creating an effective coaching environment is everyone’s responsibility. In fact, it is an exercise in team accountability.
“Creating an effective coaching environment is everyone’s responsibility. In fact, it is an exercise in team accountability.” -Phillip Sandahl
- Create a clear set of team agreements to support the virtual team coaching sessions. Ask the team, “What will help ensure that this is a valuable use of your time?” Rely on the natural creativity of the team to know what they need in order to be engaged and feel that the time commitment has value.
- Look for ways to make the session more personal and less simply functional. For example, take a little time at the beginning of each session for a personal check-in. This can be quite short and simple. It’s a way to get to know other team members as people with families or hobbies or interesting life experiences. It can also be a purely business inquiry such as, “What is one personal achievement that supports the team since our last session?”
Leadership Tip: Take time at the beginning of each session for a personal check-in.
- Virtual team sessions benefit from changes in format and exercises or activities that shift the pace and focus. Long periods of discussion have the potential for running out of momentum unless there is a conscious break. Look for ways to break up the conversation and engage the team in different ways. Most videoconference systems include features like chat or polls, breakout rooms for small group or pairs conversation, or a white board that replicates the conference room flip chart.
- As coach, be aware of the power of silence and remember that it is not your job to fill it. There is a natural tendency to want to avoid “dead air,” but it can lead a coach to overengage in order to compensate, especially when the coach is missing clues from faces or body language.
Leadership Tip: When you sense people are drifting and not present, check in and be transparent.
- Check in periodically, especially when you sense people are drifting rather than being present. Be transparent: What do you need? What will help this conversation be more valuable?
This increased organizational emphasis on virtual teams is not going away. The question is how to deal with that phenomenon in a way that maximizes the team’s potential. With the team coaching session, because the conversation tends to be broader and deeper than a more standard business meeting, and because it invites a more personal and engaged interaction, it’s important to set a different set of guidelines and have different agreements. For the team, doing this process well may take time and practice. For the coach that means the team may need reminding or redirecting when the session starts to waver into more superficial conversation.
For more information, see TEAMS UNLEASHED: how to Release the Power and Human Potential of Work Teams.