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Hiring, working on and managing Virtual Teams (VT) is a way of life today.  Most teams today have a virtual component. While a high minority of those teams are fully virtual.  Technology (cellular, text, email, Skype, social media, etal) is both our most cherished ally and our deadliest enemy in running and managing VTs.

Teamwork is at its heart, collaboration, and collaborating with a picture on a screen….a voice on the telephone….letters on a page….is not easy.  Collaboration is a nuanced art form and the very technology that allows us to create globally scattered, virtual teams is (in most cases) a poison to such nuance.

The recent high-profile policy shift, engineered by Yahoo’s new CEO Marissa Mayer, has put this subject on the front burner, not only in the pages of your favorite business publication but also the nightly news.

I would like to look at this subject from what I consider the three most important aspects to be successful in creating the remote/virtual workforce of the 21st century.

You notice I did not say a word about deciding to create it or not…that ship has sailed long ago, for a variety of reasons I will discuss at length later in the article.  Virtual Team’s are a way of life, a fact we’d do well to accept.  Finding a way for them to thrive, to create virtual environment’s that provide both the teams and the individuals on them the tools and space to succeed, and to create a consistent culture across the time zones will determine which companies achieve their goals and which do not.

 The first aspect I wish to examine is Leadership.

One of the people in my lifetime who showed he knew a great deal about building virtual teams in virtual environments (VT/VE) is former Secretary of State Colin Powell.  During Desert Storm (or Gulf War 1 as it has become to be known) General Powell (the Commander of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) helped create and led a VT/VE across 34 nations and encompassing over 950K troupes.  THAT is what I would call VT/VE on steroids.

General Powell once said, “Trust is the essence of leadership.”  And that type of leadership is the essence of building a VT/VE.

The most basic element to building a team is trust.  Trust that you can count on your teammate to do their part, pull their own weight.  Trust that your team leader will provide you with all the information and tools you will need to get the job or project completed.  Trust that your company has the wherewithal to follow through on the commitment it has made to you and that you are making to your clients (internal or external).

The company needs to trust the individual to accomplish their missions out of their direct view.  The employee must trust the company not to forget about them, that “out of sight out of mind” does not apply, that  promotions will be given on merit and not “proximity”.  Team members who have never met each other must trust that their work will not be impeded by another team member’s failure to work hard.

VT/VE is about extending and keeping trust.

(Here I have to provide an editorial aside on the new Yahoo policy and what in my opinion is a blatant breaking of trust by Marissa Mayer.  Ms. Mayer is telling her employees that they cannot work from home for the good of the company.  Some of her reasons seem sound and some studies do suggest the accidental encounters can, and do, result in creativity that being virtual does not allow.  Although many other studies show that those encounters also occur over the telephone, or in remote meetings as well, but this is not the point my editorial aside.  This aside is about leadership and trust.

Hypocrisy on the part of a leader is the easiest way to break and lose the trust of employees and the hardest to overcome to get that trust back.  The hypocrisy I am referring to is the fact that Ms. Mayer has an advantage none of her employees do.  She has recreated the most important parts of her home….at her office.  For all intents and purposes, she IS working from home (or at least her second home).

Before creating this new policy, Ms. Mayer had a nursery built adjacent to her office.  There have also been some reports (although I will admit none that I can really confirm) that she has her nanny there as well.  She built all this on her own dime (no Yahoo corporate dollars were used) which shows just how important providing herself with this flexibility is. 

Simply put, she wanted to balance parenthood and career so she built a home in the office.  Since I believe we can safely say none of her employees have this option, she is saying to them, “I can have this flexibility, you cannot.”

That is not the way to build trust….that is not the way to create teams (of either kind)…that is not the way to lead.   End of my Editorial aside.)

So, if trust is both the essence of leadership and the basis on which VT/VE is built, how do you as a leader build trust when your team members are scattered all across the city….or state…or country…or the globe?

The first action I normally recommend is regular meetings, with the first one being…ready for it….FACE-TO FACE.  I can hear the virtual snickering now coming from my virtual audience.  Yes, I said the initial team meeting should be face-to-face.  It is easier and more likely build trust with a voice you can put a face to.  Technologies like Skype and FaceTime are great once you have shaken someone’s hand, but the power of touch enhances the virtual technologies power.

The second method of building, and keeping, this trust is the creation of a Purposeful Culture and that will be the subject of next week’s blogpost.