Remember the game of "telephone"? You whisper something to a friend, who whispers it to the next kid, who whispers it to the next, and on and on. A message that begins: "There are three bugs in Susan's soup" inevitably ends up something like "Hair and tree bugs live in Susan's coupe." The nonsense is a lot of fun, but this kind of communication snafu may hit a bit too close to home if you're among the growing number of execs trying to manage and motivate virtual teams.
Whether you're linking telecommuters, road warriors, or workers based at far-flung divisions, cyber squads have unique training, communication, and trust issues now that their eye-to-eye water cooler chat has been replaced by e-mail and phone calls. I should know--every editor at Adams Business Media, which publishes Technology Meetings, is a telecommuter. I suppose that's one reason I took an interest when I heard about a new virtual- teams training program under development at The Browne Center, an experiential learning facility in southern New Hampshire, where my colleagues and I spent aday.
The Browne Center, which is affiliated with the University of New Hampshire in Durham, has a seminar building, access to 103 acres of the Great Bay National Reserve, and at its heart a challenge course with 30 high and low elements that are accessible to people of all abilities. The basic concept isn't new. Fashioning group problem-solving activities out of ropes, cables, tires, logs, trees, and platforms has been around since the 1970s. What The Browne Center brings to the table is an emphasis on outcomes, as well as an effort to adapt its training to very specific business challenges. For example, there are programs that address work/home balance issues, multicultural teambuilding, coaching, managing conflict--and now, virtual teams.
"How will a hands-on manager adapt to a virtual environment? How will a remote team establish its shared sense of purpose and goals?" These are the questions Ann Driscoll, the center's director of program development, is asking--and answering--with her newest program. "No matter how the workplace has changed, we're still going to need to develop relationships," she says. Her goal for virtual teams is to compress the time it takes to build bonds, understand what team members need from one another, and establish strategies to better communicate without the benefit of face-to-face.
If the water cooler is out of the picture, don't expect the telephone to take its place, but Driscoll's program might be just the sort of experience that could.