Motivating Virtual Teams

Getting your whole team in the same room these days is rare.

So how do you create a sense of team?

And how do you motivate people you can’t spend time with in person?

Thank you for your ideas

This article includes some thoughts from my first blog post ever! But also, this is a topic that many of you have contributed great ideas to over the past couple of years, so I wanted to collect them all in one place.  Please keep your ideas coming!

1. Virtual Team Building (literally)

I always did team building exercises when I had my team in a room together. But somehow with a remote, virtual team, I never considered that it was possible.

This was a brilliant idea that a member offered on one of our coaching calls.

How to do remote team building

First, prepare.  Distribute a template ahead of time that each person fills out.  It should include a photo of them, and questions which help people get to know each other.

Some examples:

  • What is on your iPod?
  • What was your best/worst job ever?
  • What are your hobbies?
  • What is your favorite book, movie, sport, animal?
  • What is something from your childhood that has stayed with you and you use in your work?

Then when you have your virtual meeting over a conference call, show each person’s template and photo, and have them talk about it.  It is an amazing way to help your team get to know each other as people, and build a much more productive working relationship.

Photos! Photos alone go a long way to build trust and camaraderie.  If your team is comfortable with photos, create a social media, facebook sort of page for your team to share non-work things with each other.

This is something you can easily assign to someone on your team who is inclined to set it up and keep it alive.  Refer to recent posts in your meetings.

(note: if someone refuses to submit a photo, let it go, don’t force the issue.)

2. Improve the Quality of Communications

Another issue with virtual teams is often that they are spread around the world, in different countries with different native languages.

Conference call communication is difficult enough, but if it’s not in your native language it’s excruciating.

Suzanne Pherigo created a brilliant process to deal with this.  (You may know Suzanne from Azzarello Group Webinar fame, as my Co-Host).  Suzanne runs an international R&D organization.

Add written reinforcemnent to conference calls

On all of their multi-country conference calls they use an additional IM window where people in each country type out the key points being made, translate any jargon, highlight questions and decisions, and clarify areas in the discussion that were moving fast, or unclear.

They also use blog updates which capture the key ideas and decisions from the conference call in writing, to re-inforce the key outcomes and have a record for later review and understanding.

Adding written communications to conference calls, improves understanding, relationships and productivity dramatically.  Brilliant, Suzanne!

(I would think these were good practices even if there were not language issues.)

3. Timing

Being sensitive to time zones can go a long way to make people feel like they count.

Use their time zone: Whenever I recommend a meeting time, I always note it in the time zone of the other person.

From their perspective, if they are not in the headquarters time zone they need to translate every single meeting. Just doing that one step for them makes a big difference.

Use GMT: Another idea that came from a member was to always note times in GMT so everyone has to translate equally.

Share the suffering: Also, if you need to get the US, Europe, and Asia on the phone at the same time, alternate the suffering.  Have the meeting on rotating schedule so that one time zone is always comfortable.

4. Individuals must exert their presence

As a leader, another thing you can do is let individuals who are remote know that part of their job is to make sure they are not invisible.  The more they step up to make their presence felt the more included they will feel and the more motivated they will be.

It just works so much better for the remote individual to own this.

5. Have Better Virtual Meetings

Finally, re-published from my original post…  How to have better meetings when no one is in the room.

When people are in a meeting I expect them to be “present” – listening, participating,
contributing, and NOT doing email. If people are not going to be present why have a meeting?

Here’s how I do it.

Insist on starting On Time.  Everyone is to call in 5 minutes prior and be ready to go on time.  If need be, start the meeting start at 5 minutes after the hour – sharp! No excuses. Being late degrades accountability for presence, and is a huge time waster.  Don’t tolerate it.

Start with a weather report (or another personal topic) from each person on the call.  This gives every person’s presence a chance to be felt even though you can’t see them around the table.  And it gives you an opportunity to treat people like humans, which always helps.

Insist that no one mutes their phone. I don’t care if I hear children or dogs.  This also makes it harder to type, or watch TV without getting found out.  Mute degrades presence.  And it’s another big time waster.  After a discussion has gone down the road a bit, someone will chime in and say, “sorry, I didn’t realize my phone was on mute and I need to go back to …”

Be there. Make it clear that if this is an important meeting you are supposed to have it on your schedule, be on a landline, and not be driving somewhere between more important things.  You need to set the example for this yourself too – or don’t have the meeting.

Have a clear desired outcome and the promise of a shorter meeting.  “We will finish this meeting at 9:45 so that you can hang up and do 15 minutes of something else before your next meeting.”

Reinforce the fact that you value each other’s time. “The reason we have a shorter meeting, keep our phones un-muted, and don’t do email is because we respect each other’s time and therefore commit to being present, even though we are not in the same room.”

Thanks, everyone!

You can find Patty at, follow her on twitter or Facebook, or read her books RISE and MOVE.

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