When Yahoo! revoked employee telecommuting rights, the announcement made some serious waves: many were outraged by what they saw as a step backwards in terms of social, economic and ecological progress. Others welcomed the decision, which, according to them, highlighted the difficulties inherent in managing virtual teams through establishing a corporate culture and guarding against slack work ethics.
While the debate is still not settled, there are communities that work remotely on a regular basis, sharing core values, and in highly structured settings: gaming communities.
World of Warcraft (WoW) offers us the perfect example. This Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) is one of the most popular online games, with about 10 years under its belt and several million paying subscribers who often connect several times daily. From the start, players quickly learned to form themselves into combat units, with almost commando-like organization. How is this kind of teamwork and organization possible if most of the players have never met outside the game?
Lesson 1) "raids": have a common goal and avoid meetingitis
The first reason why WoW players associate is to organize a raid: when players join forces to tackle a more complex part of the game. A raid is prepared in advance, and if all goes well, on D-Day, everyone knows their place and role.
When a company wants to lead a virtual team, it is imperative to realize that the definition of the objective must precede its creation! Too often, a team leader wants to hold weekly meetings with employees, without defining a specific goal for these meetings. If one of your employees does not understand the purpose of the meeting, you can be sure that she will slowly begin to disengage from the group. And while it can be tricky to miss a "physical" meeting, nothing is easier than pressing the mute button on your phone.
Lesson 2) "Choosing a guild" and ensuring the consistency of the team while "giving meaning to a shared value system"
When a player selects a group (a guild in the case of WoW), they are careful to select a community that shares their approach to the game: while some encourage competition among members, others place more importance on solidarity. Some are more focused on the "role play" aspect of the game and others just aim at earning as many points as possible. It is the consistency of the team members shared values that guarantees the survival of each individual group.
All too often, when setting up a virtual team, leaders see “shared values” as secondary in importance. The idea that ensuring shared values among a virtual team is less important as it is in a classic team is fundamentally flawed. I would go so far as to argue the opposite: since exchanges between team members are made more difficult through remote access, their cohesion must be ensured from the get go. Shared values offer a common ground where a group culture may take shape. This is accomplished through highlighting the shared values of the group, and intelligently selecting group members.
Lesson 3) "In Real Life": the role of empathy in a group
Just a few months gives most players enough time to reach the highest level and beat the most "bosses" of WoW. Yet millions of subscribers have continued to play for almost 10 years. This is because players “start for the fun of it, and stick around for their fellow players.” Many MMORPG fans have met friends and even their future spouse through gaming.
The game provides the tools necessary to develop empathic relationships between players. First, the players “create a personality." They can develop their avatar and give it a particular physical attribute or unique piece of clothing that will allow them to be identified at first glance.
Second, many players come out of the framework imposed by the game. For example, a bard (a type of character), rather than to communicate "normally" with other players, may adopt a more lyrical style. Some even go so far as to compose music and sing during the attack phase. Finally, nothing will ever replace the non-verbal communication. Players give themselves the opportunity to see each other regularly “In Real Life" by interposed screens or in actual face to face.
In a relationship of telecommuting, it’s important to apply these same principles. Never forget the old adage: "you start a job, you leave a team." And if you don’t feel attached to the team, you can leave the job much more easily. It is therefore essential to ensure that individuals create empathic connections. First, by ensuring that the tools for sharing information (e.g. the corporate network) also allow team members to forge a personality through a photo, a pseudonym, and personal information...
Then, don’t hesitate to break out of the virtual shell: clarify an idea of "who we are" to help go beyond the virtual and make us feel human. Finally, a virtual team should also be allowed to interact as much as possible in a non-verbal way: by video, in real-life, etc.
Manage your virtual team as you would a traditional team, with the added bonus of technology!
In fact, these principles are equally valid for "classic" as they are for “virtual” teams. Unfortunately, many still believe that thanks to technology we can spend less time managing human resources. As a matter of fact, it is exactly the opposite. Without a coffee machine or water cooler to crowd around, and without visual or sensory contacts, the team leader needs to take extra special care to ensure that sufficient time is given to coordinate objectives while also emphasizing shared culture and group cohesion.