You might be surprised. In two seminar engagements this week, it came as more than a little surprise to some of the people in attendance that they do, in fact, work on at least one virtual team. Most of the educators I spent two days with at the Getting Things Done seminar I posted about understand how technology and the public network have virtualized their educational teams (which, for almost all of them, include students and parents as well as colleagues and administrators). They know, better than most, the power of being able to text message a student and why this is so much more effective than sending an e-mail. A friend of mine who is a high school teacher told me that if a student is obviously not paying attention in class, she will send that student an SMS message telling him or her to put the phone away.
How does she do this? She collects students phone numbers at the beginning of the semester and offers to conduct "office hours" via SMS after school. Students can text message her to get the homework assignment for the next day, discuss projects they have going on, or even get an extra credit assignment (only available via SMS). This teacher gets it.
Last night, I spoke to a graduate class taught by a friend. The topic for that class was how technology enables virtual work and how, left to their own devices, how many organizations fail to adequately address the implications created by working at distance. We discussed how important it is to create the kind of personal connections that physically working together naturally produce - a quick hallway meeting or casual chat at the coffee machine or water cooler for example.
I talked about how Foldera is addressing this. We have a VP in New Zealand, another in Chicago, key financial partners on the east coast and in the UK, and I'm in New Mexico while most of the company is in Southern California. We're planning a retreat (no cell phones or e-mail) to create better personal connections with each other and to lign our respective visions and project timelines. I also recounted my experiences while blogging at Weblogs, Inc. and some of the systems and practices we developed to keep a network of 80+ bloggers all over the world engaged as a community.
Interestingly enough, many of the students in this class - all of whom are working professionals pursuing a post-graduate degree - did not immediately recognize that they worked on at least one virtual team until we did a bit of digging. We talked about teams are virtualized not only by geography but also by work shifts and even physical separation in the same building or campus.
One student talked about a team she works with to prepare a presentation for an annual meeting her company holds where regional and branch offices present about how their business is doing. Working in a small market office, she has to collaborate with people in a number of cities to prepare a presentation, unlike the folks in larger markets who all work in close geographic proximity to each other and can physically meet to do the work.
I asked her if the team ever had a chance to get together to prepare or rehearse. She told me that if the actual meeting scheduled permitted it, they would often try to get together the first evening of the event to do a quick group discussion (over cocktails!) but other than that, it was pretty much an e-mail and conference call workflow and they just got up on the stage and winged it.
I asked her if, in the normal course of business, they used any kind of web meeting software. Turns out they use a popular web conferencing service to conduct customer training sessions all the time. But it had never occurred to them to use the same technology to address their own internal needs. I suspect that when the next company meeting rolls around, this virtual team will be much better prepared.
Think about your work and the people on your teams. How do you leverage technology to bring members together? What issues do you encounter that arise from working virtually? What measures might you take to create a personal connection between people working at distance or on different shifts?