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How to work with 'virtual' colleagues

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Communication across cultures can be difficult to manage when working online. Ruby Carlino outlines how to successfully work with virtual colleagues across the globe.

The project deadline is looming in Brussels, but your programmer is snoozing under a tree in Spain and your writer is missing in Michigan. You need a 'virtual charter' before you get lost in cyberspace.

Research on effective virtual teams suggests failure rests directly on the difficulty of building trust and positive relationships across borders, time zones and cultural differences. Based on my experience with 11 different virtual teams over the past couple of years this rings true. 

My online university uses the learning team model for its virtual teams, an electronic laboratory of sorts which encourages students to build team effectiveness skills.    

These teams, which usually last six weeks, are no different from global virtual teams with members spanning two–three time zones, with physical locations spread across the globe. I have had team-mates located as far away as a submarine in the Sea of Japan, from Canada, and the British Virgin Islands.  

Although there are other challenges such as technology and internal processes, the twin challenge of managing communication and culture is the most daunting.

We normally do not have the option to pre-select team-mates, there are no face-to-face meetings, and the pressure is on to build up the team quickly. But most of all, there is no firm basis from which each member can build on trust.   
 
One of the 'best practices' tools used by these learning teams is chartering. A well-constructed team charter, which basically lays down the ground rules for the group's collaboration, can significantly improve collaboration within a virtual team.   

Chartering: What form does it take?

A charter is no more than a written instrument or contract agreed to by the team members.  It can be general in scope; however, to be a successful and effective team you need a detailed plan, a well-defined strategy on how to accomplish team goals. 

Having a detailed charter also ensures that members are working from the same 'page' throughout the collaborative process. 

What items to include in a virtual team charter and why?

(Click here to access a team charter template for you to adapt to your needs)

Team goals:
It is essential that team goals are clearly stated in the charter and understood by all members of the team. What are your team's project, process or quality goals? Is excellence and quality work, values that the team wanted, reflected by their end product? Is getting along more important than doing the job right? How well these goals are articulated can make a difference in the performance of the team.           

Skills Inventory:
This is useful as it allows members to assess their strengths and development needs.  Do you have strong editing skills but are weak on listening skills? Are you fantastic on graphics and presentations but need to develop your writing skills? More than anything else, this inventory allows the members to allocate team resources wisely and compensate for each other's weaknesses.        

Ground rules:
Team collaboration needs some structure. A laissez faire environment, particularly in a virtual setting, is a recipe for disaster. Team members need to know what are the ground rules and expectations to help them cope and function better. What are your rules for online meetings, how often and how long? How do you conduct dissenting views among members? What kind of participation or level of commitment do you expect from each other? What do you expect members to do if they have problems that can potentially affect the performance of the team? 

Personality type/learning style:
Knowing the personality types and learning styles of your team-mates can help identify how you and your team mates process and internalise the world, your work, your tasks, or how you learn from each other. It gives members another window from which to 'know' each other.

For instance, type one learners are reflectors who dislike confusion or conflict and make decisions based on feelings. However, conflict is an unavoidable by-product of any collaborative work. Knowing that a team member is averse to conflict can assist others in the team to resolve issues while minimising direct confrontations. (See the links at the end of this article to help assess your personality types and learning styles).

Potential barriers and coping strategies:
The premise of a charter is the ability to plan ahead. In a team setting, there are several potential barriers to effective teamwork, which include miscommunication, different time zones, personality and cultural conflict, language skills.

For example, if the team's goal is the delivery of a proposal and a team member located in China is tasked with writing the business environment assessment for that country but has difficulty with the English language, this is clearly a potential barrier. Identifying potential barriers allows you to plan ahead and handle issues that might become problems before they occur. 

Conflict management:
The team needs to realise right from the start that conflicts is neither bad nor good, how you deal with it is what gives it a negative or positive dimension. Conflict can stem from unmet needs and expectations, different values, perceptions, misconceptions, biases, or personalities. There are several conflict management strategies — what is important is identifying early on how you plan to deal with team conflicts before you are confronted by them.

Lessons learned:
Probably the most valuable thing you can take from any teamwork besides the actual experience itself is the lesson you have learned from your collaboration. Recognising what was successful and what went wrong ensures that successes are repeated and mistakes are not. A team that has not learned from its mistakes is bound to repeat them; the same can be said for team members. 

Chartering by no means is the panacea for virtual team challenges.  But by articulating well the team charter content, members are not only building up their communication muscles as a group, they are also making choices on what their team collaboration should be like.       

Useful links:


Ruby Carlino / Expatica

Ruby Carlino is a freelance writer currently based in El Salvador. She is also working on a master's programme in organisational management online.

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