How Good Are Virtual Team Relationships?

Old reel-to-reel tape

In my many years working virtually, I’ve come to realize that business relationships with virtual colleagues can be every bit as strong as those with colleagues in a traditional office setting. I’ve had many people tell me that face-to-face is the only way to build teamwork. Until fairly recently, however, I had no concrete examples to prove these people wrong.

Not long ago I was chatting with a virtual colleague when she mentioned an amazing thing that happened to her. She had been talking with a colleague of hers who claimed they had met in person at some point in their time of knowing each other. After carefully thinking about it, they came to the conclusion that they had never met in person. They had built such a strong mental image of each other during their many hours of virtual teamwork, that they both felt as if they must have seen eight each other in person at least once. Apparently, their many hours on the telephone, the photos they’d exchanged, and the difficult projects they had endured together had created a bond that was as good as a real-life officemate. Reminds me of that old ad slogan, “Is it Live, or is it Memorex?” If this doesn’t prove it is possible to create a great, and trusting relationship virtually, I don’t know what will.

Since hearing this amazing story, I’ve thought about the factors that made this virtual relationship so strong. The list I came up with should not be surprising for a project manager with even a passing interest in human dynamics. If you do these things with your project team,  quality relationships will form naturally:

  1. Put people on projects where they must interact frequently and intensely, such as debugging or reviewing complex code or brainstorming a new product design;
  2. Encourage your team to share photos and, ideally, short video clips of each other early on to give everyone a place to start their mental models of each other;
  3. Allow and even encourage that people take time for personal, non-work discussions — the kind of things talked about over the office watercooler — so people get to know each other at a deeper level;
  4. Let people resolve their own conflicts unless it affects the rest of the team. Allowing people to resolve their own differences builds strong relationships. If you are lucky to lead a team mature enough to resolve their own conflicts constructively, count your blessings.

See what I mean? Obvious, simple, and just exactly the same things you do for face-to-face teams — except that step two takes a little more effort.