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  • Lynette Van Steinburg

What motivates people in the virtual workplace?

The answer: the same things that motivate us face-to-face -- challenging work, recognition, being valued, feeling like we're in the know, knowing how we connect to the big picture, etc.. But, how you create and maintain that motivation changes. Here are several tips on how to encourage team building, strong relationships, and motivation within your distributed team.

  • Be understanding; Everyone is learning to adapt while trying to get the job done.

  • Trust is driven by reliability in the virtual workplace and is a fundamental part of any effective team. How can you demonstrate your reliability? There are an endless number of ways and most of them include setting expectations and then following through. Make sure you encourage and support your team members in demonstrating their reliability as well.

  • Create a virtual workplace where everyone has the opportunity to be comfortable and safe communicating.

  • Each person on the team should receive information in the same way at the same time. In a virtual setting giving information to one group earlier than another is easily seen as favoritism.

  • Involve your team members in discussions about upcoming decisions. That doesn't mean they're making the decisions (although ask them to help do that, when appropriate), what it means is that you value their input and you want to consider all perspectives before coming to a decision that's best for everyone. This will help with motivation, and productivity. We're much more likely to work hard on something if we understand the underlying reasons for doing it.

  • Ensure everyone has a voice. More on how to achieve this in the upcoming meetings post, but it's not all about meetings. Make sure you're are thinking about information exchange in general. Everyone should know what's going on across the team and everyone should be invited to participate in discussions - however they're happening.

  • Pick up the phone - when things get hectic email and texts feel more efficient, but a voice can be much more reassuring and can help build and maintain a bond.

  • Make sure your team knows when they are going to get certain types of information and how it will arrive. We all have multiple communication channels - don’t make people hunt for information or wonder when it will arrive.

  • Value the opinions of others. Ask individuals on your team to share their opinion on project, team, and organizational work/decisions being made (throw in some sports or music questions too - whatever helps you to connect!). This is not a time to argue your point of view. Listen to their answers. Ask why, discuss, but don't try to "win" the discussion. Provide information, as appropriate. Consider their point of view. Having your opinion valued (particularly by your leader) is an incredible motivating force.

  • I mentioned 1-on-1 meetings in my earlier Communication Tactics post. These are part of team building online - make sure you have them regularly with everyone who reports to you as well as some peers and your own leader.

  • If there is a large breadth of time zones on your team so that someone is always having to call in at a time that is outside typical work hours then rotate the time of the meeting so it isn't always the same person who has the uncomfortable time; everyone should take a turn.

  • Create a social channel - when we're at work we discuss social topics (whether we're online or at the photocopier), it's part of team bonding. And, some of the best business conversations happen when we discuss work socially. Just make sure that there are channels to get those thoughts and ideas out to the rest of the team in a timely and consistent manner no matter who had the conversation.

  • Provide online team building activities to keep the team bond strong. Let me know if you need some example activities.

Watch your language

  • Good leaders use "we" rather than "I" when discussing successes and plans for the future, this is doubly true for virtual leaders. A misplaced "I" or "you" can crumble confidence or erode trust; "I can't believe this happened. You better figure this out." Whereas a well-placed "we" can build trust and increase motivation; "We need to figure this out, let's brainstorm some ideas on how we can do this differently next time."

  • Open door policy - this is a well-intentioned phrase, but when I'm working with a distributed team this suggests to me that the leader doesn't quite understand the virtual workplace - this is particularly true on a hybrid team where some people are in the same office and others are working elsewhere; "open door" sounds accessible to people who are local and inaccessible to those who aren't. Rather than using this phrase, define how people can reach you. When are the best times and methods to reach you? Do you always leave a spot open on you calendar for team members to reach out? Do you have a channel dedicated to new ideas? Is there a way defined for people to discretely raise concerns or ask for coaching. Letting people know that you're open to talking about these things, willing to provide a safe environment where coaching (not blame) is offered, and how they can best approach you is what's important on a virtual team. If you need a phrase, find one that works for the situation and you: transparency channel, reach me, connect with me, glide path, all access pass, open mic, etc. Choose something friendly and inviting.

I'm going to be talking about feedback more in a future post, but I couldn't talk about relationships and motivation without mentioning acknowledgement and reward. Well motivated team members provide a lot of "good will" - they work harder, longer, and put more effort and ingenuity into improving. This is the value of appreciation. People stop doing things when they feel it's expected rather than appreciated. Acknowledge effort; reward success. Motivate every day.

People don't leave because things are hard. They leave because it's no longer worth it.

This is the second in a multi-post series on survival tactics for leading virtual teams. If you have a topic you'd like me to cover, please let me know. If you want to be alerted when the next one comes out, please subscribe to my website.

Virtual is different, it doesn't have to be difficult.

I help people be better at their virtual work. Tell me what I can do for you.

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