Recently I completed a project with a small company. I was team lead for a “virtual team”; actually I’m not a fan of that term, the team was very real, we were just geographically dispersed. The team was comprised of people recruited for other tasks. Nobody on the team was located at the company headquarters, a couple were at a very small satellite office and the rest were telecommuting. Only two members of the team worked in the same location, and only two had worked together previously.
When I started, I had a kick-off conference call to make sure we all knew the objective, our individual roles, and our major milestones. We followed up with weekly conference calls and everything seemed to be going well, until the first due date arrived. Nobody turned in their work on time and when they did turn it in, it was not the quality I was expecting. We were not coming together as a group, and communication was clearly ineffective. When I’m lead and nobody meets my expectations I look in the mirror for the root cause. I needed to change the way I did business.
Immediately I signed up for an online meeting service (GoToMeeting) which provided voice, text, and screen sharing. I could have used a free service, but didn’t want to require team members to sign up for anything, and didn’t want to experiment. I was familiar with the service and was confident it would work from day one. I then scheduled daily “team huddles”. The huddles started an hour into the day of our most western team members, so that we met early, but nobody felt rushed to log in. As we waited to begin each meeting I’d try to get some casual chat going, weather, news, vacation plans etc. and if that chat was lively I’d let it go and start the agenda when we got to a lull in the conversation. The first time someone texted something funny I joined in, so they would see it was OK. It did make my job of holding an effective meeting more difficult, in fact some days we didn’t accomplish much work at all, but the casual atmosphere brought the dislocated team together. We started collaborating more outside of that meeting, the quality of work improved and missed deadlines became the exception, not the rule.
If our CEO had ever dropped in on one of these huddles he’d probably have been horrified, but the results spoke for themselves. A couple of people even told me that those meetings were the highlight of their time with the company, the first time they actually felt like they belonged and were a valued member of a team. Working remotely you don’t have the random opportunities for “water cooler chats” this meeting became that opportunity.