Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 45;   November 5, 2008: On Virtual Relationships

On Virtual Relationships

by

Whether or not you work as part of a virtual team, you probably work with some people you rarely meet face-to-face. And there are some people you've never met, and probably never will. What does it take to maintain good working relationships with people you rarely meet?
Dr. Jerri Nielsen at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in 1999

Dr. Jerri Nielsen at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in 1999. Dr. Nielsen was serving as the base doctor during the Antarctic winter of 1999, when she discovered a lump in her breast. With evacuation impossible, she consulted Dr. Kathy Miller, an oncologist at the Indiana University Cancer Center. By email and video link, Dr. Miller guided Dr. Nielsen in performing several biopsies on herself. Later, after an airdrop of medical supplies, Miller guided Nielsen in the administration of hormonal therapy and chemotherapy. Certainly this technical achievement is impressive, but Miller must also have pioneered methods of calming and comforting her patient virtually.

We tend to consider virtual relationships in the context of routine business events, but undertaking dispersed projects also entails a commitment to managing extraordinary events virtually. Hoping that extraordinary events won't occur is not enough. For instance, for missions to Mars, when extraordinary events occur, success might depend on the virtual relationship skills of those involved. See "Doctor at South Pole Received Medical Help via Video," by Denise Grady, in The New York Times for October 22, 1999. Dr. Neilsen (with Maryanne Vollers) wrote about her experience in Ice Bound: A Doctor's Incredile Battle for Survival at the South Pole. Order from Amazon.com. Photo courtesy Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

In modern workplaces, face-to-face communications are a declining portion of all communications. We use a variety of communications media — telephone, text messaging, email, videoconference, and even interdepartmental mail and snail mail. Collegial relationships have taken on an increasingly virtual character. We regularly work with people we rarely meet face-to-face, and in some cases, we've never met and probably never will.

In contrast to the face-to-face relationship, we must be more deliberate about maintaining a warm, cooperative, and mutually beneficial virtual relationship. In virtual relationships, we lack access to the little cues that indicate friendship and respect, on which we rely to maintain the health of our relationships.

At first, being deliberate can feel false, and this leads many to avoid expressing friendship and respect, even indirectly. If you have this experience, try to recall how you felt when you received such expressions of friendship from another. Probably it felt good. The good news: with practice, the feeling of phoniness fades. Here are some tips for maintaining healthy virtual relationships.

Make contact when you don't need to
If you always wait until you absolutely need something from your colleague, then you might inadvertently "train" him or her to associate a message from you with your needing something. If you think it might be appreciated, send a short hello-how-ya-doin' once in a while.
Make appointments if you're both very busy
If either of you has a shortage of interruptible time, making appointments can be a welcome courtesy. Sending a note such as, "Do you have five minutes this afternoon?" can be more respectful than an unexpected phone call.
Exploit opportunities at face-to-face meetings
At times, you might find yourself at a meeting also attended by one or more of your virtual colleagues. Take advantage of these situations to say hello, have lunch, or spend some time not focused on work. Unless the meeting has an immediate and specific purpose related to the work you're doing together, use the time in other ways.
Introduce your virtual colleagues to others at your site or elsewhere
Make introductions when you can. Connect your virtual colleagues to other people at your site, or to other virtual colleagues of yours. Check first, though — they might already have met (virtually or otherwise), or one or the other might not wish to meet.
In contrast to the face-to-face
relationship, we must be more
deliberate about maintaining a
warm, cooperative, and mutually
beneficial virtual relationship
Send "heads up" notes and thank-yous when appropriate
If you hear of something that your virtual colleague might like to know (other than gossip), pass it along. And send thank-yous when they're deserved. Both will be appreciated.

Most important for maintaining any kind of relationship, send congratulations, holiday greetings, and condolences. Most of us like the comfort of knowing that we're in the hearts and thoughts of the people we know. Being remembered feels good. Can you remember someone today? Go to top Top  Next issue: Accepting Reality  Next Issue

303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsIs your organization a participant in one or more global teams? Are you the owner/sponsor of a global team? Are you managing a global team? Is everything going well, or at least as well as any project goes? Probably not. Many of the troubles people encounter are traceable to the obstacles global teams face when building working professional relationships from afar. Read 303 Tips for Virtual and Global Teams to learn how to make your global and distributed teams sing. Order Now!

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Artist's concept of possible colonies on future mars missionsComing June 28: Tackling Hard Problems: I
Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project. Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps. Available here and by RSS on June 28.
Artist's depiction of a dust storm on Mars with lightningAnd on July 5: Tackling Hard Problems: II
In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end. Available here and by RSS on July 5.

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The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

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