Establishing trust on virtual teams remains a crucial challenge despite the growing proliferation of virtual project teams and diverse collaborative platforms. Jill Nemiro’s prescient “Creativity in Virtual Teams: Key Components for Success” published in 2004 is even more relevant now, twelve years later
Given this dismal fact, we wanted to know if there were indeed any best practices for developing virtual team trust. This led to an extensive review of the related literature (involving 100’s of academic studies, white papers, and business cases) spanning several sectors and industries over a decade. The following summarizes key findings.
A band prepares for a major concert by practicing. The musicians’ must tune-in emotionally and tune-up instrumentally together. They know their best performance depends on it. Professional sports teams must also practice to achieve peak results. Simply put, practice makes better. This is what excellence demands.
Project Teams are also expected to perform optimally on demand and on schedule as well. However, unlike their professional musician and athletic counterparts, they don’t generally get to practice together.
The Storming Stage
There’s a link between lack of project team trust and the duration and intensity of that team’s Storming Stage. When people don’t know each other well, it’s very difficult to be transparent and trusting. This is even truer working virtually. When project team members attempt to clarify roles, responsibilities, and tasks, classic negative emotional responses typically arise including: confrontation, conflict, opposition, inertia, and opting out.
Research shows that trust is established through rapport, empathy and reciprocity. These qualities require an authentic emotional connection between human beings. In turn, this calls for ‘soft skills’ or social and emotional intelligence, also known as EQ, for emotional quotient. Conversely, in low trust situations, one’s guard is up and one is closed off to others and to new ideas or possibilities.
After analyzing extensive business and academic sources, we identified a variety of trust building exercises available varying in cost, duration, and complexity. Many are freely shared on the Internet. For example, during a virtual team’s first meeting everyone shares a photo of a pet or hobby. Mainly these are variations on exercising different types of social and emotional team skills.
10 Basic Practices
The following are 10 basic best practices. Each in its own way can help produce virtual equivalents of a ‘water cooler moment’ and help ‘break the ice’ thereby creating conditions for trust to emerge.
Prelude To Team Harmony
We actually identified 20 best practices in all. We’ve distilled these into one cohesive experiential solution. The Prelude Suite™ is a compact way for virtual teams to grow from ‘me’ to’ we’ in 3 easy steps.
Step 1: Tune In & Tune Up — Teams complete a unique self-assessment called iStar™. This provides a powerful image of a whole team made up of whole human beings. This also maps their diverse collective soft assets they can tap into and harness. The resulting analytics can also show where there may be team soft skills imbalances.
Step 2: Practice – Teams practice key soft skills in the co-creation of positivevisual symbols of the team’s alignment, purpose, and context. These artifacts can continue to have aspirational value throughout the project team’s life.
Step 3: Bridge — Teams apply a unique Team Alignment Plan™ to bridge lessons learned and soft skills identified to producing more powerful Team Charters.
During these 3 steps, “virtual strangers” learn about each other as whole human beings. They get to practice working together as a team and to improve their soft skills through a dynamic experience animated by a Certified Facilitator Coach. This involves Self-Assessment, Self-Expression, Co-Creation, and Dialogue. As teammates become attuned to each other, cognitively and emotionally, their Trust Quotient goes up and Forming into Performing is naturally accelerated.
Prelude is a facilitated modular experience. It therefore, may be tailored to fit the size and schedule of any team of any type. We want to ensure each team member has space and time to share at each stage. A micro team of 5 or less members, for example, may go through the basic process online in one session of about two hours. A larger team of 10 members might require two sessions totaling 3 hours.
Prelude At Play: Virtual Team Co-Creating weTag™
Our Own Virtual Team
Our virtual team manages a virtual enterprise marketing a virtual resource. We span two continents, three countries, six cities, several time zones, and we still have not met together physically. Operating as a virtual team ourselves for three years affords deep insight into virtual teamwork challenges and how to address them proactively. What we’ve learned first hand along with our original research informs the Prelude Suite™.
Howard is the founder of playprelude.com and co-creator of the Prelude Suite™. It's design is informed by his interdisciplinary, cross-cultural doctoral research and international experience managing teams in the private and non profit sector. His latest publication is “Virtual Strangers No More: Serious Games & Creativity for Effective Remote Teams” http://www.igi-global.com/chapter/virtual-strangers-no-more/143522
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