Virtual Teams Can Be an Unequal Playing Field

Team sitting around a conference call phone
In this series, I’m sorting out the fact from fiction on virtual teams and giving you a few practical suggestions to help your virtual team get real. In the first post, I advocated for the importance of small talk and rapport building. In this post: dealing with the challenges of satellite locations.
What do I mean by the term “satellite locations?” I’m talking about very common virtual team that has several members in one office and then individuals or small groups in dispersed locations. Imagine a head office in Huston with five team members, an office in Calgary with 2 members, and then one team member in each of Brazil, China, and Scotland. 
The problem in the dynamic on a satellite team is that not all the team members have the same experience. The folks in Huston feel like a traditional team (especially if the team leader is there). They do their meetings in a room together and they get all that beneficial downtime with each other. Each time the group jumps on a conference call, it feels like two meetings: The “real” meeting in the room in Huston and the “virtual” meeting for the people on the phone. The folks on the phone can hear laughing and side conversations. They get lots of cues that they are the outsiders. Half the team has the benefit of body language cues, the other half doesn't. You get the picture. 
This invariably leads to perceptions of in-group and out-group, inner circle and outsiders, in-the-know and out-of-the-loop. Having been in both the center and the satellite situation, I can attest to the pitfalls of each. In the center, politics tend to take up a much greater percentage of time while the satellite office just stays focused on business. In the satellite, you always feel like the last to know because you’re more dependent on formal communication channels. The grass isn’t greener, but as always, it appears so from the other side of the fence. 
It’s time to start leveling the playing field on your virtual team. 
  • As often as possible, have the co-located team members participate from separate rooms so everyone experiences the call the same way.
  • Have good technology and discourage people from calling in on cell phones. If you can't hear, it's easy to tune out.
  • As the team leader, go to the satellite locations at least once per year to experience how it feels from the other side of the fence.
  • Take advantage of company events, customer meetings, and even vacation travel to get the team together physically whenever possible. Make sure these opportunities include breaking bread (if not quaffing beer). 
  • When business trips come up, encourage a member from head office and one from the satellite to travel together to get the benefit of social time.
  • Ask everyone in the room together to provide color commentary on the meeting “There are a lot of confused looks in the room, can you tell us what you mean?” or “Joe’s not responding to your comment, because he’s choking on his coffee at the moment.”
  • Rotate conference call times (in teams that span time zones) so everyone gets a chance to feel the love on a 2am call.
  • Get serious about cutting out the side conversations in the central office. None, zip, nada. 
  • Encourage team members to socialize their ideas within the team before the meeting; use these opportunities to gauge people’s reactions ahead of time so they are not trying to read the room blindly.
  • Give satellite members key topics to lead, so they’re not feeling like they’re trying to jump on a moving playground roundabout.
  • Use video conference or collaboration technology to promote attention and interaction (no doing email while on the call) especially if it's a complex or prolonged meeting.
  • Call it out when you suspect satellite members are checking their blackberries or responding to email (Do I hear typing? or Are ya' with us?).
Teams where everyone is together are great. Teams where everyone is apart have challenges, but they are the same challenges for everyone. If you’re working on a satellite team, make the effort to level the playing field so everyone on the team can add their full value. 
Thanks to my very real virtual teammates Dr. Seonaid Charlesworth and Tiina Moore for some great suggestions on this post.
For more tips and tools on how to make your team work, visit