This past month marked the culmination of a two year journey. Two years ago I set out to co-author a book with a colleague and along the way joined forces with two others to produce our book, Workshift, as a virtual collaborative effort. Located in four different cities, across two countries, we merged our collective experiences, approaches and tackled the process of finding an agent and publisher. We managed to get to know one another better, leveraged our strengths and wrestled with inevitable challenges in establishing processes and producing a product in the backdrop of a purely virtual setting. This undertaking was not dissimilar from other collaborative projects I’ve led or worked on, but given the unabated growth of distributed teams, reinforced for me four essential ingredients for virtual collaboration success:
- Trust and Shared Leadership. The best team experiences authentically foster trust and shared leadership. One of the trickier aspects of developing trust in virtual settings, though, is getting to know your colleagues when you can’t see them in 3d. How do you develop trust when you haven’t had years of working together face-to-face or traveling together before? To strengthen virtual collaboration and capabilities, a focus on building trust and acknowledging the impacts of how work has changed is correlated with stronger outcomes and performance. Improving Virtual Team Performance offers a good illustration of the components required for team formation, personal accountability and group dynamics that are cornerstones for any virtual collaboration to thrive.
- Interactive Virtual Gatherings. In a recently released a report on the Subtle Power of Collaboration, Accenture highlights how a global team within the company devised a collaboration strategy for a two hour meeting and made it more successful than meetings in the past by ensuring variety, interactivity and reciprocity were embedded into it. Any virtual collaboration has to recognize and encourage how each participant plays an important role in shaping the outcomes of a project, process or product, and allow for opportunities to engage and contribute on multiple levels.
- Collaborative Tools. Technology enablement is a cornerstone for virtual collaboration success but with an overabundance of tools to choose from, teams run the risk of using them as a panacea. Cloud technology like Dropbox works well for distributed teams to create a workspace repository; web conferencing like WebEx and Google Hangouts foster the interactivity needed to keep things tracking forward. While collaborative tools help build strong virtual work ecosystems, they haven’t yet mastered facilitation of conflict resolution.
- Conflict Resolution and Negotiation. Managing conflict is among the biggest obstacles for any virtual collaboration regardless of the technology ecosystem that supports it. Without co-location, opportunities to diffuse tension or conflict is minimized and can trip up any individual or collective team effort. Learning how to negotiate decisions, differences in opinion, and stylistic differences is one of the harder challenges for virtual teams to move through. Knowing when to subjugate individual versus collective/team needs (or vice versa) can be a tough balance and requires virtual collaborators, as Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management at London Business School shared in a recent HBR Webinar on The Third Wave of Virtual Work, to be boundary-spanners with cooperative skills.