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Virtual Teams and the Millennial Generation - Putting the Heart Back into Online

So, this question needs addressing. Much of the work I do focuses on creating connections in teams, building psychological safety and coaching compassionate, collaborative leaders. It doesn’t seem to matter what kind of session I’m in at the moment though, the topic of virtual working comes up.The question goes, “How on earth do I create this connection (which they know is important and which I am helping them to understand is important) when my team are in Scotland/Ireland/India/Singapore?” As global teams and flexible working create ever more disparate touch points in our teams and networks, how do we be human across the literal divide?

We work in remote teams for many reasons, distance national and international, flexible working arrangements, client co located teams to name a few. But how do we build and sustain culture and trust in these teams?

The theme that really struck me on this came from a group whose large organisation has teams all over the country and is correctly focused on its carbon footprint therefore limiting travel was. The comment was, “We are devaluing Skype calls as they are not important enough to travel.” There is a two tier system of person to person meetings occurring, one premium valuation on meetings which merit travel for and one lower valuation for those which do not. Which is, of course, not the original intention at all of minimising travel and environmental impact, but is a worrying by product. Essentially, we need to go back to basics and start by putting the same amount of effort into our remote relationships and conversations as we do our face to face ones - stick to the rules we know work best, don’t be a d!**head (thank you New Zealand Rugby), and always make sure we are looking after each other (my key collaborative behaviour).

The other theme which comes up almost every time as a sub topic of this discussion is about generational differences (sigh), leaders who have been in business for twenty to forty years all say, “but the millennials all communicate on text and IM, I ask them to ring a client and when I follow up they have emailed, they don’t talk to each other.” Now, I was born in 1981 so am technically a millennial (I have two jobs - very millennial, I have two kids and a mortgage - not so millennial) which should serve to illustrate that the human beings in that ‘category’ are many and hugely varied and unique. This is an important point when thinking about virtual communication in just about any context - collaboration in teams, with clients, social networks, social media, marriage, kids - categorising people and taking an ‘us and them’ stance is seldom a path to success. It stops us from reaching out to understand and empathise with people as individual humans in all their unique glory and enjoying the success that comes with that.

This talk of generations is all highly relevant to the topic of remote working in that the new working reality experienced and created by those coming into the world of work in the last ten years is driving remote working. More so, it is embracing it and making it a central part of working patterns, which I am personally grateful for (see the two kids referenced above :)). From social media nomads travelling the world blogging from their phones to cafes filled with people from corporate employees to startup entrepreneurs happily toiling away from the office - believe me this is a huge shift in working patterns from fifteen years ago. It isn’t exclusive to millennials or any so called generation either, it has moved far beyond this and permeated all levels of business and communication. Zoom, Skype, Trello, Teams, WorkSpace and many more awesome tools facilitate remote chats, meetings, huddles, retros not to mention project collaboration. This kind of working is not going anywhere, we like it too much, the industry is building around it and rightly so.

So, to the question of remote team culture and some possible answers or thoughts (credit to the ideas of others at the end of this article):

The problem is it's harder to build trust when you can't meet someone face to face. Interacting by phone and email is less intense than face to face, and can be less frequent. Hence the lack of trust in many remote teams.

Here are some ideas (credit to Larry Reynolds for this article on Leading a Virtual Team). You may notice that if you removed the word ‘virtual’ or ‘remote’ from any of these they are simply the ways in which any compassionate, people focused, successful leader would behave with a team sitting right next to them! Food for thought...

  • Have frequent online meetings – virtual teams that have weekly or more frequent online conversations are generally more effective than those that communicate less frequently

  • Consider having short quick virtual huddles

  • Build in occasional ‘social' calls to get to know your team members. Especially important with people you know less well or don't naturally warm to

  • Make yourself accessible – have some well understood team protocols for how the team can get in touch with you easily and quickly. For example, if they make an email high importance you will always respond that day: if they call you between 0800 and 0900 they will get an immediate response etc

  • Have face to face meetings if possible at the launch of a project team or occasionally with an ongoing team. Develop a team charter

  • Use online meetings to share successes and talk about how the team is working as well as dealing with current business items

  • Provide unexpected, after the event, reward and recognition

  • Trust your team – let them know that you are giving them the freedom to deliver results

  • Stimulate peer–peer relationships in your team with joint projects, buddying, mentoring etc.

  • Accept that you have to do more work ‘behind the scenes' to understand your team members and their motivations.

  • Recruit with care and set expectations carefully with new recruits about items such as frequent interaction, interaction on calls and efforts to connect with and support other team members. Check that the skills, appetite and potentially experience are in place to support great remote working

The nub of this article is that the world is not changing, it has changed, and we are connected in new, different and exciting ways now which have transformed the way everyone lives and works. Now there is no question, we need to put the same effort and value into every conversation, listening, questioning, challenging, no matter how we are communicating, with whom and where on earth they are. Bring the human back into online, people and teams will move beyond survive to thrive if we do.


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