Is it possible for a team to be cohesive, effective and healthy and not work in the same building? The short answer: Yes.
But like any team or community, it takes work. Light & Life Communications is a team of nine that works in three states in seven cities. Over the past two years, we’ve built something fairly solid as a team. From time to time, we’ll write about how we collaborate, connect and work together. To set the table for this conversation, I want to share some initial thoughts on the basics of virtual community, offer some key principles and ask you to share your thoughts. From research and trial and error, I’ve identified three keys to success: culture, leadership and tools.
Virtual community is defined as a “collection of individuals who interact and function as a group without being in the same place at the same time. Virtual groups are frequently created to complete a task. The task may be to solve a problem, make an important decision or set of decisions, or formulate a plan to accomplish a desired objective” . They generally have geographic dispersion, asynchronism, porous boundaries and network compositions. It’s an important idea that there is freedom in the group because of an intentional and specific structure. This type of structure, married with empowerment and freedom of the team members, are keys to building an effective virtual team.
To accomplish this, it’s important to have the right kind of people on the team who are wired for this kind of culture. Some people aren’t wired to work independently, outside the office or with little supervision. To get culture right, you have to have people who are self-starters, passionate about the mission, and directed and resourced accordingly. This allows the leader to truly empower the group. To get culture right, you’ve got to hire the right kind of people.
One key principle found in the literature review is the importance of face-to-face interaction to build a virtual community. It can’t be done solely online. There has to be a balance. “Trust building is vital for sharing, and trust primarily develops through face-to-face interactions.”
This was a surprise to me as I was looking at research and developing these concepts while working in higher education at Spring Arbor University. We were building online courses and the importance of having students connect face-to-face. The research indicated that this was key to building community in the learning experience. As I transitioned this concept to building a department for the denomination, I recognized the need for our team to spend time together face-to-face. To accommodate this, our team meets in Indianapolis regularly throughout the year and in smaller groups regionally from time to time as needed. These shared experiences have definitely drawn us closer together and enhanced culture.
The literature speaks strongly regarding the role of the leader in developing a strong virtual team. Dubé and Bourhis  assert: Those whose success exceeded initial expectations had very involved leaders who possessed the ability to build political alliances, to foster trust and to find innovative ways to encourage participation. These people ended up in this important position because a member of the organization’s management team or the sponsor had decided that they had the right set of abilities and should be selected and given the resources that were needed to do their work well.
John Maxwell famously coined the phrase, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” Building virtual community is no exception. To build community, the leader has to invest time in the people and process. This not only is an investment in time in the team but also in the concept of virtual community. Community is manifested by being intentional online on Skype for nonscheduled interactions to build community.
The big payoff is in when we gather together face-to-face. We try to eat together, drink lots of coffee and play together. We’ve read books together on how to connect and serve. Probably the greatest wins for building community through leadership is when our team gets wins. We celebrate our wins together. I also attempt to send encouragement cards and occasional gifts or books.
Overall, I continue to learn. Some of our attempts succeed and some fail. The importance is to recognize that the strength of the organization is related to the strength of the team. My priority is my team. When we win, the denomination wins.
Virtual teams thrive with culture, leadership and the right tools to connect and collaborate. The research points to this as an important piece of connecting people who are not in the same place physically.
“Virtual team leaders should take time to assess the needs of the team and its individual members, employing guidelines and rules of netiquette that the team can follow for the duration of the project” . Not only do virtual teams need rules to agree upon, the research says they also need best practices to stay on the same page with goals and objectives. Gaudes points out “organizations can also facilitate training programs specific for virtual teams that may include conventional team development exercises (such as clarifying team goals and individual roles), but also include best practices in electronic communication and self-management”.
We will be taking a more significant time to unpack what tools we use and why we use them in subsequent posts. The key here is to underscore that tools don’t make the largest difference. They serve leadership and culture. They serve the team. They are important. We use Skype, Google Hangouts, WebEx, Dropbox and Basecamp for basic communication, project management and collaboration.
Have you built a virtual community? Are you in the process? What have you learned? Share your best ideas by posting comments below. Virtual community is not a cookie-cutter deal. It’s still evolving. We understand that our road map isn’t the only one. Share yours.
- Hirokawa, R., Cathcart, R.S., Samovar, L.A., & Henman, L.D. (2003). Small Group Communication: Theory & Practice: An Anthology. Cary, NC: Oxford University Press.
- Dubé, L., Bourhis, A., & Jacob, R. (2004). Structuring spontaneity: the impact of management practices on the success of intentionally formed virtual communities of practice, [online], Cahiers du GReSI no 04-20, http://gresi.hec.ca/cahier.asp
- Gaudes, A., Hamilton-Bogart, B., Marsh, S., & Robinson, H. (2007). A Framework for Constructing Effective Virtual Teams The Journal of E-working 1(2), 83-97