Dear Dr. Scott, I’m working in one of the virtual groups in your online Masters class. I’m at my wit’s end trying to complete our group tasks for this first week of working together. To be honest, it’s really challenging to “collaborate” with the group when there are only 2 of the 6 of us present online in our virtual group’s wor- space! I have tried to engage our members. I have emailed them. I have posted requests for folks to jump in to the dialogue. But the clock is ticking and I’m getting ticked, too! What advice do you have about how I should proceed? It’s just very stressful trying to work with people who are not willing to participate.
Signed, Freakin’ Frustrated Frenzy in Florida
So I teach graduate students online. There are often virtual group projects assigned. Through the years I have seen some groups flourish and some tank. Typically, these people have never met face-to-face, and even during the project never speak voice-to-voice. Sometimes I receive a plea from a student like the email above (based upon a true story!).
What are the keys to successfully working in a virtual group? Whether for an online course (which a growing number of people across the globe partake in weekly), or a business virtual group – what are some concrete steps to building an effective virtual work group?
1. Connect with group members as individuals; try to establish a sense of a personal relationship right away – rather than focusing solely on the tasks at hand. Ensure clarity of purpose and who the group members are right away. And most importantly in this first step, conscientiously communicate respect and value toward each person and the experiences and depth each person brings to the group.
2. Be willing to be authentically vulnerable. By approaching conversations as a humble contributor (rather than a know-it-all), you add to a positive chemistry where insights and perspectives of others are genuinely encouraged. Operating without assumptions for why other group members do what they do helps you remain open to discovery – and encourages others to share openly rather than defend any shortcomings.
3. Verbalize agreements in the team setting. Even in a virtual, text-only setting, committing to actions and timelines – and then following through! – builds trust in the virtual group. There’s not much beyond being dependable and pleasant that the group may know about you in the fully virtual, text-only group; following through on agreements sets the team up for continued effective work toward its common goal.
4. When life gets out of control as it sometimes does, or when “it” happens and you can’t follow-through or engage with your virtual group as intended or planned, are you willing to “own” your behaviors? If you willingly address your shortcomings and include plans for how you intend to avoid this in the future, you help your group get over your short-lived failure. (Believe me, they most likely already know about your shortcoming! Being silent about it only causes them to doubt that you are aware of how you negatively impacted the group.) “Owning” your behavior drives the level of trust up – which is so critical for the success of a virtual group.
5. Express appreciation for the efforts, contributions, and personhood of your group members. It is amazing how a little bit of verbal appreciation goes such a long way! Celebrate the value that each person contributes; celebrate the mini and major milestones of the group’s progress.
These keys to build real trust in a virtual group also work in building a trusting culture in a group that meets face-to-face. The difference is that in the virtual setting, you just have to be a bit more focused on investing in your group’s positive momentum – because you can’t rely on “sensing” feelings through voice tone and body language and facial expressions! In the virtual group it becomes tricky at best to check your perceptions.
Going back to the email I received from my graduate student, Freakin’ Frustrated Frenzy in Florida, it was somewhat funny to see the debacle unfold as it came to light that the assumed “missing” and “unengaged” group members were not missing or unengaged at all! They had (all) mistakenly been dialoguing in a different area of the online work-space for the group…and had been wondering where the “other 2” group members were! No one was dis-engaged…they were just a bit confused on the correct virtual location in which to work together!
Part of the 5th key above to build trust in a virtual group includes the strategy of operating without assumptions in trying to understand the motives and behaviors of others. One of my favorite statements when it comes to communication – whether virtual or face-to-face – is: Assumptions get you nearly every time!
By Dr. Heidi Scott - Leadership and Organizational Development Specialist (who for fun teaches undergrad Communication and graduate Leadership!)