Virtual teams?

I work a lot via Skype, and I find it very effective in one-on-one coaching sessions.

Actually, when doing Brief Coaching, I work exclusively via Skype – and it works!

On longer coaching engagement, say for Leadership Development, I found that a mix of face-to-face sessions and Skype sessions is the best.

The ratio depends on the topics we are working on, but typically face-to-face sessions lend themselves well to build rapport and trust, a very precious commodity when dealing with challenging issues. Moreover, face-to-face sessions might be needed if direct observation and immediate behavioral feedback is required as part of our work together. Still, I feel that most of the work can be done remotely, and a ratio of 2:1 for me is pretty standard (2 Skype sessions for each face-to-face session).

I am sharing the above to make clear I am a big fan of technology: coaching via Skype is effective and it saves traveling time / money, to the practitioner and to the client. Moreover, since I am spared the trip, I approach the session fresher and with more energy, and that allows me to be at my best for clients.

While Skype is effective for coaching or consulting conversations, I have always been on the fence about “virtual teams”, i.e. video conferencing as the main environment for teams to gather and interact.

Since my first work assignments with IBM Consulting back in 1997, I noticed you could have groups working together via the internet or intranet – but a group a team does not make.

The qualities of cohesion and deep alignment, hallmarks of great teams, are hard to come by via cable and monitors.

Some research seems to support this: as Ori and Rom Brafman point out in their book¬†¬†“Click: The Forces Behind How We Fully Engage with People, Work, and Everything We Do“, simple physical proximity is one of the most important predictors of long term personal engagement with someone.

On the other hand, there are some bright examples that seem to point the other way. One of the most spectacular cases of success in using technology to forge a cohesive network and shared team spirit is Gen. Stanley McChrystal‘s JSOC command in Iraq (see his autobiography “My Share of the Task: A Memoir“, more specifically chapter 10, “Entrepreneurs of Battle”).

So I found it really interesting that Yahoo! has been the latest internet company to cut back on teleworking, basically saying that physical presence is necessary for enhancing team identity and coordination. This has been Google’s policy all along – despite all their perks in their campus, Google employees are generally required to be there; exemptions are possible but on a case-by-case basis.

I thought it interesting that some internet companies that sell us virtual connections and social media actually hum to a different tune, relying on physical presence and proximate human contact to foster effective and creative teams. What do you think?

PS: and just as I was editing this post, this was published by The Wall Street Journal. The quote most relevant for our blog post: Like Bank of America, Cubist discovered a correlation between higher productivity and face-to-face interactions.