Virtual Teams Are Made of Real Humans

Business man looking a tablet with video conference of his team

Much is made of the difference between co-located and so-called virtual teams.  I think the moniker is pretty silly, because the teams with members who sit in different countries aren’t any less real than teams that sit practically on one another’s laps.  What is very real is the challenge of making teams work when the members aren’t physically together. This is the first in a series of blogs on making your virtual team work.

The first lesson comes to us from the world of fast food (yup, stick with me). I learned many years ago from a segment with Dr. Art Ulene on the Today Show that fast food isn’t really all that terrible (and certainly not as bad as you would think given how you feel after eating it).  Instead, the problem with fast food isn’t the food, it’s the fast. Turns out that the contextual cues when we eat fast food cause us to eat very, very quickly; shoving a fistful of fries in while still chomping away on the mouthful of burger. It’s the speed with which you eat fast food that causes you to eat too much and take in air that causes gas. Ever since I started eating slowly, I’ve had a very different experience of fast food.

Now, what has this got to do with virtual teams? Well, we have the same problem with the contextual cues we get from the way virtual teams have to work. Conference calls, video conferences, remote technologies in general tend to signal to us that we need to stick to the task at hand.  We’re paying for long distance or for webex fees.  As a result, we go too fast and tend to miss all of the rapport building and small talk that are critical to a great team.

The cost of missing out on this is both personal and organizational. The personal cost is because of the impact on interpersonal connections and trust building. The business cost of foregoing the chit chat comes from the loss of small talk—the “how’s your week going?” It’s often in this informal banter that we find opportunities to help one another, to solve problems together, and to spawn new and creative ideas. 

So in your frantic efforts to build and sustain your virtual teams, slow down. Try one of these ideas in the next few weeks:

  • Take 15 minutes to talk about your weekend.
  • Spend one call a month just on updates from your different areas. 
  • Use a collaboration tool to have an online brainstorming session. 
  • Celebrate a birthday with a 30 minute call about nothing.
  • Watch a sporting event together over Skype (thanks to by bi-continental friend Vickie for this one).

For a high-tech solution to the problem, check out this Fast Company article and video on the Cisco and iRobot joint venture that will give you a second body in another location. Maybe we’re getting closer to cloning ourselves than we thought!

As is so often the case, slowing down will speed you up.  (And while you’re at it, try Dr. Art Ulene’s fast food trick. Don’t put food in your mouth until you have completely finished your previous mouthful—you’ll be amazed at the difference!)

For more tips and tools on building high performance teams, visit my blog on