According to Dr. Tom Allen, author of Managing the Flow of Technology, people are not likely to communicate or collaborate very often if they are more than 50 feet apart. How then, do we foster communication and collaboration when people are geographically dispersed?
As a professional corporate trainer who has coached over 1,000 project managers across North America, I have found that the most effective starting point when it comes to opening the lines of communication is to create a Team Operating Agreement.
A Team Operating Agreement (TOA) guides the team's actions and interactions.
A TOA is the set of behavioral norms that the team agrees to abide by. They can be formal or informal. If a team does not deliberately create them, they will develop on their own...which may be problematic. Geographic, ethnic and cultural differences impact on the effectiveness of how individuals and teams operate. Awareness of these differences is vital if communication is to be clear, honest and properly directed.
A TOA can be as inclusive as a team chooses it to be. The more inclusive it is the less chance for miscommunication, conflict and lost opportunities. Ideally, the TOA should be created at the beginning of a project or when a new team forms.
A TOA may include the following categories:
- Meetings begin and end on time
- We attempt to schedule meetings to accommodate people in different time zones
- We take into consideration holidays of the different cultures
- We respect and listen to what other people are saying on the call and we don't hold sidebar conversations
- We communicate delays in dealing with an item no later than one business day
- An agenda will be issued via email one week ahead of time
- We check e-mails twice a day
- We have a no scroll policy on all emails
- Once a communication has started the parties will not allow interruptions
- We handle conflict directly with the person concerned and work to resolve it
- We identify and communicate possible conflicts clearly and immediately
- We give feedback in a timely manner, respecting cultural sensitivities
- We will not make commitments or make decision for other professionals in our team or my project manager without first consulting them
Implementing the Team Operating Agreement
How can these objectives be realized? Use the following steps to implement a TOA on your virtual team.
- Brainstorm: Have each team member list what they would like to see become part of the TOA
- List all ideas on a document camera, whiteboard or flip chart
- Clarify. Ensure team members thoroughly understand each statement
- Prioritize. Choose the top five or six items for your list
- Discuss. Modify, remove or live with each statement
- Adopt. What has been tabled at the "official" TOA; laminate it and display it in your virtual meeting room
- Adapt: Review and adapt as required by the team
- Evaluate. Assess the effectiveness of the TOA
Over the years of teaching the principles of the Team Operating Agreement, the questions that have come up most often are: "How do we create true buy-in for the TOA?" and "What if you have people on the team who do not abide by these principles?"
Since you are part of a team, it is your responsibility to determine as a group what actions to take for non compliance. It can be as simple as:
- having the person be the one taking the minutes
- assigning that person to being the time-keeper at the next meeting
- fining that person money and use the money towards charity or an office event
Deciding on what the consequences for non-compliance are for the team is important and the course of action should be recorded as part of your TOA.
It is critical to note that the TOA is not a stagnant document; it can, and probably should, be modified during the course of a project.
Virtual teams are the way of the future...but they use many of the features of successful business units of yesterday and today. To find out how to create an organization-wide Team Operating Agreement, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Claire Sookman specializes in helping virtual teams maximize their potential through training, coaching and consulting. She can be reached at email@example.com or at 1-877-497-7749 which is also the number to call for a free Virtual Tips CD.