In today’s new workplace, virtual teams are the status quo. In a recent survey we conducted, at least 74 percent of respondents work in a virtual team or have teams that work virtually from different locations. How can you build an exceptional team in a cross-functional, virtual work environment?
Here are five ways learning leaders are building strong virtual teams to improve business results:
1. Adopt project management principles: Executing important projects across time zones and lines of business requires a planned, coordinated effort. “Driving maximum effectiveness, efficiency and collaboration in a large, geographically dispersed learning team can be challenging,” said Tina Busch, director of employee development and performance, Pitney Bowes Inc. “We have utilized project management principles to create cross-functional teams led by a project manager to execute mission-critical initiatives. A unique outcome in this approach is that all team members, regardless of job level or function, assume project management or team-member status, empowering everyone, minimizing silos and maximizing a collaborative approach to our work.
2. Use team inventory tools to access strengths and weaknesses: Stephanie Ackley Crowe, chief learning officer at Learning Path, highlights interdependencies. Team members share what they will need to succeed and what their strengths and assets are, then volunteer to fulfill each other’s identified needs. “Many of my colleagues swear by this approach, and I use MBTI or DISC [personality tests] if the team is specifically focused on professional development,” she said. “However, my most successful teams have been ‘learning in action’ teams, and therefore focused on a project or set of clear deliverables. So instead, I use a more informal, results-oriented approach that allows people to focus on what they are bringing to the table in a more tangible way (e.g., subject matter expertise, perspective from a particular global region, closeness to the customer.) This way, the team does not have to become experts in an organizational development concept to be effective. This is a tradeoff, of course. Using a team inventory tool helps people to learn more about themselves and others, so they can work effectively now and in the future. Without it, they rely on the facilitator or team lead to create an environment for the effectiveness of the team.”
3. Use technology for a collaborative virtual work environment: Successful collaborative virtual work groups maintain connections using technologies. In our survey, 71 percent of respondents said their teams have a shared virtual work environment. Conference bridges, webcast environments, video conferencing, IP phones, document sharing tools, texting, IM and survey building tools help make virtual teams more effective at Bell Canada. Since Bell has such a large geographic reach, virtual teams and the need for effective remote collaboration is a part of daily existence. “This is something the company encourages our employees to do. Virtual collaboration tools help minimize the need for travel and enable us to maximize our time and efficiency,” said Leslie Jefford, associate director of enterprise learning.
4. Enhance openness and trust: Among respondents to our survey, 62 percent do not participate in activities specific to team building. One firm that does is Gensler, an architecture, design and planning firm. Gensler partners with a volunteer council to ensure the organization has a learning framework across all disciplines that is flexible, accessible, relevant and meets the needs of the firm and its clients. “An organizational and operational structure was created to ensure frequent and open communication, sharing of content and sharing of metrics,” said Janine Pesci, director of learning at Gensler. “Behind the council leadership sits another volunteer body of learning coordinators, one in each office, who are charged with supporting logistics and reporting. In all cases, transparency and open transfer of information is necessary.”
5. Encourage professional development: At Adobe, the learning and development team makes it easy for members to direct their own professional development. “An element of our effectiveness as a team is our tenure with Adobe, our strength in learning and development and our ability to learn, update and renew our approaches and offerings,” said Anne Storer, director of global learning and development. The team also has hosted a face-to-face Learning Summit where all employees involved in education meet as a community to share knowledge and facilitate cross-functional collaboration.
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