Inside All of Us is a Great Virtual Collaborator
By Nancy Settle-Murphy

Posted July 08, 2012

I was especially intrigued by a response evoked by my recent blog about the qualities of a great virtual collaborator. Alia Selim from General Physics Corp., emailed me to say, in effect, that we mustn’t exclude people from virtual teams just because they don’t exhibit the traits I identified of a successful virtual collaborator. “I feel it is the responsibility of those on the front lines of virtual meetings and interactions to drive a culture of inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness,” she explained.

Point taken! I wanted to find out more about Alia’s perspectives, so I suggested we book a call and maybe even write a blog together. This post is a recap of our conversation co-written (virtually) by both of us.

In any given team, there are bound to be differences—in cultures, personalities, communication styles, work habits, expertise, seniority, and many other aspects. Rather than view differences as a challenge the team must address, think instead about how we can leverage differences, and at the same time nurture each team member to thrive in a virtual work setting.

The first and often toughest step for a virtual team, especially where members don’t interact frequently, is to understand the styles and preferences of each member. Using tools like DiSC, Social Styles and Myers Briggs can help with initial assessments.

But these assessments are simply starting points. The leader has to dig deeper to really understand what will motivate and engage each person. Our advice: take your best guess about activities most likely to be a good fit for each person based on your interactions with them and possibly the initial assessments performed. Use your intuition and instincts. Try out different people on different tasks until you get a better sense for how best leverage the skills, styles and preferences of each team member. Consider having people share control with someone with complementary qualities and strengths, so they both can learn.

For example, I pointed out earlier that social butterflies tend to thrive in a virtual environment as their personalities drive them to create and maintain connections with members of their group. What if one of your team members is shy and reserved? Assign her a task with someone who’s more extroverted (but not domineering!) who can serve as an informal coach or mentor. Make sure the task requires real-time conversations to work through it, for example, conducting phone interviews. Find ways to draw her out of her comfort zone in such a way that she will gradually feel more confident interacting with others. We suggest that you don’t assign shy workers to tasks that can be done independently with little need for interaction, such as research or writing. That will do nothing to help coax them out of their virtual shell.

Disciplined time management and organization skills are important in a virtual environment. What if a team member, perhaps very communicative and creative, struggles to keep deadlines and manage their calendar? Make sure he understands the effect this behavior has on other team members. For example, when he acknowledges that he is behind schedule during a team call, pointedly ask others what effect this will have on their work. (E.g.: “Mary, I noted that one of your critical path items requires that David complete his assessment by Monday. How does this delay affect your ability to get your work done?”) This kind of “public” discussion will have far greater impact than continued private prodding. It shows that you’re serious about upholding important group norms about respect and communication.

But what if team members need certain traits to get their jobs done, and those traits seem to be altogether absent? Try to meet them halfway by modeling the desired behavior. This can be tricky for a virtual leader, who is restricted to certain times, places and communication channels to get subtle messages across.

If, for example, someone needs to be a liaison between two virtual groups in her role as a technical consultant, you’ll want to model exemplary facilitation skills in your own team meetings. As the virtual leader, giving the collaborator an opportunity to identify those needed skills (as you make subtle suggestions to help the identification process) will go a long way to get her buy-in so she can own her development as a virtual collaborator. The key is shift people naturally, building on skills and strengths they have, and never pushing them too fast, or too far, outside of their comfort zone.

On the flip side, one of the most useful characteristics a virtual leader can exhibit to remain calm and nurturing when working with a diverse group, which defuses stress and lets people feel more included and a vital part of the team. People can hear impatience, intolerance and frustration and when people sense stress, they feel stressed. Always be aware of where people are, and be adaptable and accommodating until they can get where they need to be.

The bottom line is that even though certain individuals don’t have what you may call “successful virtual collaborator qualities’ does not mean they should be excluded or denied the opportunity to collaborate in in a virtual team. As our world dives deeper and deeper into an ocean of virtual interactions we must find more ways to find suitable roles for everyone regardless of the traits they possess.

Posted by Nancy Settle-Murphy