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!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendxiNRqEYYmCFKMGaner@ChacKpIJbeKNisUnOgZGoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

A bookshelfSmart Bookshelves
If you like to browse in bookstores, you probably know the thrill of new ideas and new perspectives. When I find a book worth reading, I want to own it, and that's how it gets to my shelf. Here are some tips to help you read more of what you really want to read.
A Roman coin from the reign of Marcus Cocceius NervaThe Ups and Downs of American Handshakes: Part I
In much of the world, the handshake is a customary business greeting. It seems so simple, but its nuances can send signals we don't intend. Here are some of the details of handshakes in the USA.
The Messerschmitt Me 262, which was the first jet fighter to fly in combatHow to Foresee the Foreseeable: Preferences
When people collaborate on complex projects, the most desirable work tends to go to those with highest status. When people work alone, they tend to spend more time on the parts of the effort they enjoy. In both cases, preferences rule. Preferences can lead us astray.
A stretch of the Amazon rain forest showing storm damageUnnecessary Boring Work: Part II
Workplace boredom can result from poor choices by the person who's bored. More often boredom comes from the design of the job itself. Here's Part II of our little catalog of causes of workplace boredom.
Orient quad, photo by George H. Van NormanHow to Deal with Holding Back
When group members voluntarily restrict their contributions to group efforts, group success is threatened and high performance becomes impossible. How can we reduce the incidence of holding back?

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness, Emotions at Work and Virtual and Global Teams for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Balancing talk time and the value of the contributionComing March 29: Virtual Blowhards
Controlling meeting blowhards is difficult enough in face-to-face meetings, but virtual meetings present next-level problems, because techniques that work face-to-face are unavailable. Here are eight tactics for controlling virtual blowhards. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
kudzu enveloping a Mississippi landscapeAnd on April 5: Listening to Ramblers
Ramblers are people who can't get to the point. They ramble, they get lost in detail, and listeners can't follow their logic, if there is any. How can you deal with ramblers while maintaining civility and decorum? Available here and by RSS on April 5.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenyQdLsgGeCWBLjKugner@ChacKwMELZAJYFPWuTTHoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

Conflict Resolution Skills for Leaders
ConflConflict Resolution Skills for Leadersict is inherent in collaborative work. When conflict is constructive, it produces better outcomes. When it's destructive, it can be an insurmountable obstacle to success. In this program, we explore the connections between the outcomes of collaboration and conflict in both of its forms. And we emphasize the skills needed most by leaders. The leader's task is to manage conflict so as to ensure that the group achieves its objective with its capacity to collaborate intact, or even enhanced. Rick Brenner shows team leaders and team sponsors the techniques they need to manage team conflict for relationship safety and better outcomes. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Influencing Outcomes Without Authority
Your Influencing Outcomes Without Authorityability to influence others — whether upward, downward, laterally, or within a team — always depends on both the quality of your relationships with the people you influence, and on your perception and their perception of your personal power. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you the techniques for making things happen not by using formal organizational power, but by using informal, personal power. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Strategies for Leading Teams in Hard Times
When Strategies for Leading Teams in Hard Timesa project team is on task, the contributions of leaders are important, and little noticed. Sometimes the team encounters unexpected difficulty, or requirements change, or budgets are reduced, or any of a number of other things might happen. In these cases, the leader must make or facilitate decisions about how to respond or how to revise the plan. We get through it somehow. Hard times are something else altogether. Despondency, disillusionment, resource shortages, unexpected and severe failure of the plan, and toxic conflict can erode morale. How can leaders deal with such situations? Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Strategies for Technical Debt: A Workshop for Enterprise Leaders
TechnTechnical Debt Management for Enterprise Leadersical debt is more than mere IT jargon. It's a metaphor that refers to the accumulation of technical artifacts that really ought to be retired, replaced, rewritten, re-implemented, or, if absent, created. We can find technical debt in almost any system, including those that seem to be working well. So what's the problem? The problem is the "interest charges." Systems carrying technical debt are more difficult to maintain, more difficult to extend or enhance, and more difficult to use, than they would be if we "retired" the debt. This engaging and eye-opening program points the way to a path that leads your organization out of technical debt, to make it more adaptable, more transformable, and more agile. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date 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:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.