Friday Sep 05, 2008

What Can You Do With a Virtual Team?

A colleague of mine asked me about ideas for teaming activities for virtual teams – that is, ways to reproduce the water cooler in a virtual environment. What I thought would be a quick Google search ended up being a bit more frustrating.

I found a lot of information on managing virtual teams. Not what I was looking for, but if you want the short version, it's:

  • Make sure your team has a common vision and goals. If possible try to have a kick-off meeting in person to establish vision, goals and group norms.

  • Gain commitment from team members. That in-person kick-off helps with that as everybody has a say in establishing the vision, goals and norms.

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Did I mention communicate?

  • Inclusion. A virtual team will likely create diverse viewpoints. Make sure that everyone has an opportunity to voice their opinions and provide input.

  • Establish clear roles and responsibilities. This prevents people in four geographic areas from working the same problem, duplicating efforts and wasting resources.

Now that you have the highlights, back to my colleague's question. How do you create that “team environment” virtually? I am in no way pretending to be the expert here, but I did find some interesting ideas around tools and activities.

Productivity Tools

Make sure that you have good productivity tools. This is probably the number one rule for success of virtual teams. Remember that “good” is relative. What may work for one team won't necessarily work for another. Some common references to tools were:

  1. Instant Messaging: Most companies will have some form of IM tool in place. These tools allow team members to communicate in real time with one another. Kolabora has a great article called Instant Messaging Tools and Technology: A Mini-Guide that outlines a variety of tools – most of them free – including features and capabilities of each

  2. Web Conferencing capabilities: Web Conferencing allows you to have a conference room type of meeting over your computer. Most of these offer chat, whiteboards, application sharing, etc. to make your team feel more involved in the action. The Center for Learning & Performance Technology has a great list of Screen Sharing & Web Conferencing Tools.

  3. Skype: If you need to conduct video calls between team members, Skype is the way to go. Not only is it free, but the quality of calls is pretty good as well. Just remember that people on your virtual team need to have a video camera on their computer for this to work!

  4. Facebook: Create a group on Facebook for your team. I admit, I'm a new user to Facebook, so I don't have a lot of details on what you can or can't do with Facebook. I did see quite a few references to using Facebook to keep in touch with your team, however.

  5. Internal Wiki site or web site: Depending upon your company's internal tools, you may be able to set up a web site or wiki site for your team to share things like a calendar, to-do lists, documents, discussion strings, etc. Based upon some quick browsing on my part, wiki sites tend to be more popular as team members can add and update information without dealing with HTML.

Virtual Team Activities

So you've got some tools in place, but what can you actually do to ensure that your team feels a sense of camaraderie? How about some of these?

  1. Video Conference

Try to hold a video conference at least quarterly so people can “see” one another. If you have people based at home, they can use Skype (see Tools section above). People based on a corporate campus can use a video equipped conference room.

  1. Online Scavenger Hunt

Come up with a list of 15-20 things that people need to find online (related to the team's goal, a current project, or something else). Divide the team into small groups, making sure office and home based people are mixed. Have prizes for various things: fastest to complete hunt; most interesting presentation found; most interesting video found, etc.

  1. Host a Teleconference Lunch

Everyone dials in for a phone call during lunch where no “work” related talk is allowed. People could share one non-work related goal/interest. You do need to make sure that people on the phone have opportunities to talk. It sounds kind of crazy, but a group of my friends had to resort to this one for a baby shower when the mom was on bed rest in another state. It worked!

  1. Expertise Arena

On your team collaboration site (facebook, wiki, web page, etc), list each team member and his or her top 3 areas of expertise. Encourage other team members to use their co-workers' expertise when solving problems.

  1. Recipe Exchange/Holiday Report

To foster understanding of other team members' cultures, have each team member provide a recipe that their family enjoys at a particular holiday. Team members may also want to share the importance of that holiday.

  1. Idea Day

Give each team member a half day where they can explore something of interest. At your weekly team meeting (because you are having a weekly team meeting, right?), pick 2-3 people to share what they learned on their half-day.

  1. Getting to Know You

Prior to a team meeting, have everyone provide some piece of information about themselves. At the meeting, have a person read the description and allow team members to match the person to the description. Some ideas include a favorite hobby, a favorite superhero and why it's a favorite, the best book that you've ever read and why; your favorite job and why, etc.

  1. E-Cards

Send team members an e-card for reaching team milestones or personal milestones (e.g. projects completed; promotions; publications; patents granted; birthdays; anniversaries; birth of children, etc.)

  1. On-Line GeoCaching Game

Instead of using GSP positions, have each team member identify a cache location and provide clues (written or pictures). Other team members need to find the cache. Progress and results can be tracked on the team wiki (or other collaboration site). Check out the Official Geocaching Site or Wikipedia if you've never heard of geocaching.

  1. Online Gaming

Get team members together to play an online game – World of Warcraft, Fantasy Football, etc.

I also found a book that I think has potential - More Quick Team-Building Activities for Busy Managers by Brian Cole Miller. The reason I liked this book is because every activity has ideas for adapting the activity for virtual teams. I didn't read the book in its entirety, but, as I said, I think it has potential. By the way, if your company has access to Books24x7, this book may be available through that site.

I know that this is not anywhere close to comprehensive, so tell me – if you work with or manage a virtual team, what do you do to make sure the water cooler exists?


My blog is a look inside my head on ideas about learning, organizational & personal improvement and other stuff. I manage Oracle's Managing at Oracle team, but all thoughts and opinions expressed here are solely my own!


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