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

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

A possibly difficult choiceComing April 21: Choice-Supportive Bias
Choice-supportive bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to evaluate our past choices as more fitting than they actually were. The erroneous judgments it produces can be especially costly to organizations interested in improving decision processes. Available here and by RSS on April 21.
Two people engaged in pair collaborationAnd on April 28: The Self-Explanation Effect
In the learning context, self-explanation is the act of explaining to oneself what one is learning. Self-explanation has been shown to increase the rate of acquiring mastery. The mystery is why we don't structure knowledge work to exploit this phenomenon. Available here and by RSS on April 28.

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