al-che-my/ al- kə- mē
- the medieval forerunner of chemistry, based on the supposed transformation of matter. “It was concerned particularly with attempts to convert base metals into gold or to find a universal elixir.”
- A seemingly magical process of transformation, creation or combination “finding the person who is right for you requires a very subtle alchemy”
However, as anyone who has led a virtual team knows, it isn’t as easy as that. There’s more to creating the alchemy of a high performing virtual team. Take any co-located team, pull them apart, and watch the ground shifting underneath you. Maintaining that sense of belonging, the elixir of energy, the collaborative spirit, that team allegiance, is an uphill challenge.
I speak from experience, as much of our team works virtually. We’ve struggled with the same issues our clients have. We didn’t go into the virtual world enthusiastically. In the first phase, outstanding members of our team needed to move their families out of the area for one reason or another, and we made accommodations. That was the start. Later, we hired people who were more than a car ride away. Recently, we made a business decision to extend virtual work arrangements to professionals who were frequently traveling and not often using their office space.
We did what we thought we needed to do. We helped them set up in their home offices, invested in new technology, tested instant messaging systems, scheduled new virtual tag-up team meetings. While everyone was game, being a good sport isn’t all it takes to maintain the alchemy that makes for great culture.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But I have been a careful observer. Some of what I’ve learned has been from our own global clients. For years, we’ve helped them to institute better ways of communicating, to help virtual teams drive projects forward and get things done.
We’ve heard them ask questions like, “How do you keep people informed about conversations that happen casually in the hallway?” “How do you get people to build relationships when time together is limited?” “How do you know when someone on your virtual team is having surgery, or that they’ve bought a new house, or, their spouse got a new job?” When you’re not grabbing a cup of coffee in the same kitchen, those conversations don’t just happen.
It’s work. That’s the truth of it. The secret is developing a virtual leader mindset. This mindset doesn’t mean it’s perfect, but I think it can help you avoid some of the miscues, miscommunications, and mistakes. It gives you a fighting chance to keep the glue of a high performing virtual team.
7 Virtual Leader Mindset Practices
- Adopt the view that the gold standard in communication is face-to-face. Sure, it’s easier to send an email, or make a phone call, but those aren’t the best way to create the glue. Make it a point to use video or even get together whenever you can.
- Act as if everyone is virtual and the meeting is “in the cloud” not in the room where most people happen to be sitting. Don’t treat people outside the conference room as the “away team”. Act like they’re at the table, call on them first, get their opinions.
- Prepare more thoroughly for virtual meetings than you do for in-person. For example, make it easy for people wherever they are to read documents live, by sharing them on the virtual screen. Send everything out in advance. Come 15 minutes early and prepare the room.
- Walk the “virtual hallway”. It’s easy to walk down the hall to a nearby office to ask someone a question. Keep virtual people in your minds-eye and make a point to have casual conversations with them, not just about projects, but about what’s happening in general.
- Practice the art of resonance – walk a mile in those virtual shoes. It isn’t easy to be home trouble shooting your own mobile technology, sitting in an airport lounge on a four-hour delay, or realizing you’re out of the stream of things at the office. Acknowledge the sacrifices people make working virtually.
- Learn how to do virtual high-fives. Call people when you hear they’ve done something great. Create a virtual trophy and email a photo. I know of one company that used to send a goofy figurine around the world every time one of their team members landed a new account.
- Never stop looking for ways to connect. Don’t allow out-of-sight-out-of-mind to take over the thinking in your organization. Ask yourself the question, who do I need to connect with today and why? Give yourself triggers. Taking a break? Send a text. Between meetings? Give someone a call.