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The Key to Effective Collaboration on Virtual Teams (Hint: It Has Almost Nothing to Do With Technology)

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By Dr. Teresa Peterson

I don’t have to tell you that the world of work looks very different than it used to. For many organizations and even entire industries, remote work is the rule and no longer the exception. 

The truth is that whatever you call it—virtual teams, distributed teams, remote workers—the result is the same: by and large, we’re working together while we’re apart far more often. Instead of analyzing the merits of this model, we’re going to look at how we navigate collaboration effectively. How do we connect with one another when we’re not in the same physical space? How do we solve problems, innovate, and build together through screens? What can our organizations and the humans who lead them do to build environments where virtual collaboration isn’t rote and transactional, but real and transformational?

The answer isn’t some new technology to try, increased accountability measures,  or “engagement hack.” It’s simple. It’s culture.  

Let’s look at how this plays out via A Tale of Two Organizations. In our experience facilitating virtual learning experiences, some organizations are quick to shy away from the delivery method altogether because they believe it will be disengaging by default. We like to push back with (not surprisingly) a question: Is that a rule or a possibility?

We have learned along the way that even the most skillful facilitation cannot fully override the cultural norms of an organization if those norms are transactional. Let’s call this Organization A. Here, transactional norms manifesting in a virtual environment can look like:

  • Multi-tasking during virtual engagements
  • Keeping cameras off
  • Refusing to share in the chat or conversation
  • Neglecting to affirm others who do share in the chat or conversation

Essentially, these amount to some version of “logging on and checking out.” On the other hand, we’ve also learned along the way that when cultural norms of an organization are transformational, remote collaboration can be both highly impactful and genuinely enjoyable. In what we’ll call Organization B, that can look like:

  • Staying focused on the conversation at hand (or at least keeping side chats to about what’s happening in the meeting)
  • Keeping cameras on 
  • Sharing in the chat, engaging in conversation, and using reaction buttons
  • Affirming others who share in the chat or conversation

In Organization A, there’s a lack of psychological safety and trust. The culture says, “If you don’t have the right answer, it’s best to say nothing at all. It’s risky to be seen here. It’s risky to stand out and participate or contribute because then you’ll be seen. And if you’re seen, you might get more on your already-full plate, or you might face consequences.” Organization A is full of unhealthy stress, and the team doesn’t have a lot of faith or trust in leadership.

In Organization B, there’s trust. The culture says, “It’s safe to be seen here. It’s safe to stand out and participate or contribute. It’s okay to not know the answer or to ask a question. We want you to be present because we value you, not because we tell you to. You are safe to share here. We want your contribution. You matter.” There’s still stress in Organization B, of course, because that comes with doing business. But the team has faith in its leadership and reaps the benefits of a high degree of psychological safety—benefits we know to be many, both on a personal level and an organizational one.

As facilitators, we often get a front-row seat to this Tale of Two Organizations. It’s like what Amanda Trosten-Bloom, who I like to call the fairy godmother of Appreciative Inquiry, pointed to once on the Conversations on Conversations podcast: As a consultant, you experience a culture the way its people experience the culture.

It’s also been said that the way we do one thing is the way we do everything. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I do know that if you find yourself showing up to virtual collaboration opportunities in the way of Organization A, it’s likely you’re showing up transactionally in other responsibilities of your role, too. 

And if you’re a leader of an organization who is looking for the next shiny tech platform or “hack” to boost virtual collaboration, I gently invite you to look inward first. In many cases, a problem with the effectiveness of virtual collaboration is a symptom, not the diagnosis itself. (If this is you, there’s good news. It’s safe not to know the answer. That’s why we’re here to help.)

Additional Resources

5 Lessons Learned After 14 Months of Virtual Service Delivery

How to Virtually Repair Relationships at Work

Freedom is Different than Flexibility: A Wakeup Call for Companies

A Conversation on Remote Work with Neil Miller

A Conversation on Appreciative Inquiry with Amanda Trosten-Bloom

A Conversation on Psychological Safety with Brandon Springle

Dr. Teresa Peterson
Director of Learning and Development | Website

Dr. Teresa Peterson is the Director of Learning and Development for Sarah Noll Wilson, Inc. In her daily work, she serves as Sarah’s key content collaborator. Teresa enjoys facilitating, researching, and is passionate about applying best practices for learning to make our experiences meaningful, engaging, and accessible for all types of learners. Teresa holds a Doctorate in Education from the University of Northern Iowa and brings over twenty years of experience teaching, facilitating, and leading to our team. Our clients love Teresa’s grounded energy, depth of thought, and ability to listen deeply.

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