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With all the social media tools and technology available, virtual teams offer opportunities for new forms of collaboration that have not existed before. But what elements make those teams really work? We talk about this in a webinar with Holger Nauheimer, one of the leading German authorities on Change Management and Facilitation. Holger has become an expert on web-based social network technologies as tools for change facilitation.

Holger started with an interesting question: (How) do you feel the pressure to use social media? Is there any stakeholder pressure? Or pressure from clients you work with? Well, that would definitely help! Most participants in this webinar feel the pressure, because they themselves see so many valuable possibilities, but struggle to get colleagues, clients and management involved.

  • ‘We work primarily with teachers, but they don’t see the advantage of using social media’;
  • ‘Clients more and more ask for new ways of working and learning, so we see this as an opportunity for online learning’;
  • ‘The idea of having a paperless office really counts in our organization. And this is a good link to sharing knowledge online’;
  • I see it as a great opportunity to increase the efficiency of our learning initiatives, but I think I am the only one… Our clients prefer personal contact’;

Holger uses a definition for a virtual team that stems from Wikipedia: “A virtual team (also known as a geographically dispersed team or distributed team) is a group of individuals who work across time, space and organizational boundaries with links strengthened by webs of communication technology.” With this in mind, he defines six categories:

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It helps to feel pressure from external and internal clients to replace parts of traditional team work patterns with virtual collaboration processes. Culture plays an important role as well: ‘you can’t control a virtual worker, or if, you can’t force him to be engaged’. Probably you agree with this? This idea makes us talk about output in stead of input. We have had several attempts in the past to make this shift, but now it is getting more serious. And… team working patterns have to be aligned with the needs for new ways of working. Holger mentions five principles for new ways of working:

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In the webinar we focus a bit on trust. According to Holger, trust in a virtual team is:

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The less intimacy (or closeness) you have in a team, the more difficult it is to create trust. So, increasing intimacy increases trust. But increasing self-orientation reduces trust. It is very important that virtual team members care for others. When trust is so important in a virtual team, the question raises what are things you can do as a facilitator to increase trust?

  1. At the beginning of a project start with social time during face tot face meetings. Do things that are not only related to work. Talk in the beginning about strengths, hopes, interests and expectations.
  2. Then consciously build relationships among people by for example working in small groups of 4-5. Small groups add to a feeling of safety.
  3. Reflective time is crucial. By reflective time we mean time for learning about the team dynamics: how we work, what works fine, were meetings fruitful, what have we learning about successes/ failures?
  4. Invite people into collaboration. Choose the right questions and listen well. Ask for help!
  5. Use several topics in conversations. Talking about substance and facts is not enough. For good and effective collaboration people need to talk about hopes and expectations, meanings and emotions.

Very concrete suggestions which might definitely help us in facilitating virtual teams! And interestingly, so far Holger has not spoken about tools at all! For that matter, Holger has the same believe as we do… thinking about strategy, structure, process is so much more important than thinking about the tools! He shows a wonderful picture regarding the tools with the title ‘understand tools as spaces’. What type of spaces does your virtual team need? And what are suitable tools to create those spaces?

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Addressing the sixth category of virtual teams brings us to the closure of this interesting webinar. I really got a lot of new energy from this conversation with Holger to work more focused with some of those ingredients  in a few communities I am involved in. A few last questions? Pitfalls? Thinking too easy about technology. Miscommunication: how does someone receive a certain message? And the fact that nobody feels accountable for the process in the team. Successes? Building relationships. Making sure all information is available to all team members. And facilitative leadership.

Want to read more from Holger Nauheimer? He is author of many publications, and particularly known as the creator of the Change Management Toolbook, author of the Change Management Blog. And you might also want to take a look at The Virtual Handbook.

Dit webinar is onderdeel van de leergang ‘Leren en veranderen met sociale media’ die 8 maanden duurt. Iedere leergang zijn er 4 webinars met internationale experts. Mee doen met de nieuwe leergang in maart? Meld je hier aan.