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Bridge the Distance Website

Bionic eTeamwork. Jaclyn Kostner (Dearborn, 2001)

Virtual Leadership: Secrets from the Round Table for the Multi-Site Manager. Jaclyn Kostner. (Warner Books, 1996)

Knights of the Tele-Round Table: 3rd millennium leadership: What every leader should do! What every remote leader must do! (Warner Books, 1994)

A recent survey in USA Today of 419 companies reports that 60 percent cut their travel budgets in 2001, and 50 percent expect that 2002 travel budgets will fall below 2001 levels.

To leaders in virtual teams, this news is devastating. Face-to-face communication is the way that humans have interacted, built relationships, and worked together for millennia. Meeting face-to-face puts people in a familiar environment that feels warm, comfortable, and easy where they can interact. Virtual teams always knew that between all those emails and conference calls, the travel budgets would provide a sweet oasis where people could come together to re-energize.

Then, the world sped up. The economy took a nosedive. Travel budgets evaporated. Virtual teams had the carpets literally ripped out from under their feet. Now there was no oasis to jumpstart the sense of team. Suddenly, leaders found relationships and team spirit significantly more difficult to create.

Virtual teams can no longer afford to wait for the next face-to-face meeting to develop rapport, build sense of team, and create high-performance teamwork in every sense of the word. They have to learn how to do that from afar.

Actually, an exciting new generation of very creative leaders has broken new ground by creating a warm, interactive team environment, virtually. They have learned how to create the next evolution in teamwork: Bionic Teamwork.

The Evolution to Bionic Teamwork

Over the past 20 years, teamwork has evolved through three very distinctive phases.

Phase 1: Collocated Teamwork. Everyone on the team works in one location. Their technology for success is to keep other parts of the organization out of their way, as they creatively tackle the job in front of them. As people rub elbows throughout the day, they have a warm and comfortable environment, rich in communication cues, to enable them to feel like a team, act like a team, and produce results as a team. Not only do people see each other day by day, but they also see team progress unfold in front of them.

Phase 2: Virtual Teamwork. At least one person works from a different location:  homes, customer sites, distant offices, or mobile locations, anywhere in the world. Their technology for success is twofold. First, to learn to use and rely on email, voicemail, and conference calls for most of their team communication—rather than going down the hall to talk. Second, to travel to be together in a more familiar communication environment—face-to-face. In fact, many people who work on virtual teams often comment that face-to- face meetings are often the only place where the team really feels team spirit, joy, and camaraderie. As a result, people squeeze as much work and play into that same site visit as possible because they know that distance will drain away that spark.

Phase 3: Bionic Teamwork. The leader and team are intentionally smarter about how they use technology to extend a human touch, build their sense of team, and collaborate in ways that often are superior to traditional face-to-face meetings. Technology isn’t looked upon as a device. Instead, it humanizes and supercharges interaction in a way that makes the leader or team better, stronger, or better. It doesn't matter if the team has ten people in ten locations, people on Bionic Teams work together as comfortably in a digital space as other teams do in one physical place (as if they had flown to be together). Most Bionic Teams will travel for at least one face-to-face meeting, but their strength is that they have learned how to be a lively, interactive team, from afar.

Bionic Teams rely on many of the same technologies that virtual teams use—such as portable computers, e-mail, cell phones, and conference calls. Leaders of Bionic Teams, however, go one step further. They use a new generation of collaborative technologies—web conference, electronic team rooms, and desktop video conferencing—in ways that drive exceptionally fast interaction and exceptionally cohesive teamwork. Bionic Teams want every upgrade, and they upgrade every technology they use. Why? Because it gives them a whole new world of ways to exchange the communication cues that people need for high-performance human teamwork.

However, merely having videoconference and web conference technology, for example, does not make your team Bionic. All of us exist in a sea of technology, yet only a few are achieving great leaps in rapport and results. To create Bionic Teamwork, leaders need to take another step: to use technology in ways that build relationships, speed the interaction, personalize the communication, and otherwise add synergy when the team collaborates, from afar. If you have not seen a significant rapport or productivity leap when using web conferencing, video conferencing, and electronic team-room technology—don’t blame the technology. It only provides the infrastructure for success. Leaders need to provide the rest by applying that technology to the team in ways that help people work better together.

Five Leadership Practices to Create Bionic Teamwork

There must be no compromise in the level of teamwork that you and your global team believe you can achieve virtually. Bionic Teamwork is not about technology. Instead, it is about how the team uses technology to create high performance teamwork, from afar. Some of these suggestions you can put in place today, while others will require that you step into a whole new world of technology.

1.   Personalize your voice presence.

To communicate effectively from afar, our voice presence must feel as close, personal, and warm as if we were sitting right next to each other. Why, then, do we tolerate any voice technology where words screech through a speakerphone, sounding little better than the voice of a drive-through order-taker at McDonald's? Whether you are talking through a speakerphone or listening through one, your voice presence is immediately compromised. No communication that feels like shouting is good communication. Speakerphones make team conversations too public, as well, making the eMeeting environment too unsafe for honest, open talk.

Leaders can create a warm voice presence in three ways. First, always use a headset in all 1:1 phone conversations and small-group web conference meetings. A headset will make your voice sound warm and personal. With today’s inexpensive corded headsets, and more expensive wireless ones, people can talk in a normal tone, as if they were in a one-to-one conversation. Using the headset totally changes the tone, warmth, and clarity of your voice.

Second, stop using the mute button in small group meetings. One of the worst habits of the virtual teamwork stage is the misuse and abuse of the mute button. It immediately stifles communication and breaks team trust. In live team conference calls, when someone tells a funny story, we should hear spontaneous laughter, not silence. When some topic is unpleasant, we should hear the groans. When someone asks a question, we should immediately hear voices in response, as if we were in one room. The only time Bionic Teams use a mute button is (1) if the team has over 10 people live online, or (2) if there are loud noises in anyone’s background (like a dog barking) that would distract the eMeeting.

Third, if you use a conference room, get the best professional audioconferencing equipment. Effective communication requires that voices sound normal and natural, not unclear and distant. Most speakerphones are so poorly equipped to do group conferencing that the speakerphone button, not the mute button, should be disabled. On the other hand, meeting room audioconference equipment has microphones and speakers specifically designed to relay voices from or to a group. Anyone in the conference room who is sitting more than 2-3 feet from the audio conference equipment should use a remote microphone that extends from the base unit.

Bionic Team talk is spontaneous and natural. Words are spoken in a normal voice and received clearly at other sites. Survey your team about voice presence any time team equipment or the team environment changes. In this age of fantastic technology at low prices, don’t settle for anything less than the best voice equipment. A few hundred dollars goes a long way to connect your team in more ways than a phone link. If voices feel close, people will feel closer to each other.

2.   Use web conference technology to let teamwork unfold on-screen.

According to WorldCom's 2001 Meetings in America study, only 19 percent of businesspeople use web conference technology. To create Bionic Teamwork, web conferencing is the most important technology since the invention of the phone and email. This new tool lets globally dispersed people collaborate on whiteboards, documents, polls, chats, and web tours, among many other important features. Web conferencing adds a visual dimension to communication that supplements your great audio connection (professional audio equipment or headset).

Why is web conferencing a new critical tool? It provides an infrastructure through which a team can interact with tremendous ease and speed. There is a big difference, however, in how virtual teams use it, contrasted with Bionic Teams. Virtual teams use web conference technology mostly to give PowerPoint presentations to people at other locations. Others linked to the session are in a more passive state, watching one slide change to the next, or participating on one or two polls.

Bionic Teams, on the other hand, use web conference technology to speed interaction, decision-making, problem solving, collaboration, and results. Instead of one person clicking, everyone on the team is clicking, keying, and verbally interacting throughout the entire online meeting—but in a very organized, structured, yet spontaneous way. Imagine the most interactive face-to-face meeting you’ve ever seen; Bionic Teams interact many times faster and more intensely, from afar, through their web conference technology. All eMeeting participants watch teamwork unfold onscreen, as the people collaborate on many dimensions provided by the web conference technology.

3.   Put all team members on a level playing field for team collaboration

Feeling and being connected to a group is a basic human need. Yet, the way a team selects and uses technology often excludes those off in the distance. For example, one team had nine people in one location, and one other about 1,000 miles away. During the team meeting, nine sat together in one conference room, and the other was linked by a conference call. Even though not intentional, the one remote person was always excluded from participating as a full member of the team. He said, "I felt like the forgotten stepchild." The problem is much greater than hurt feelings. It’s also broken trust, broken sense of team, and broken teamwork.

The key problem in this case was the difference in communication cues in the two environments. The nine were all in the same room, functioning like the collocated team. They could see each other's facial cues, sense when to cut into the conversation, grab the marker to ride on the flip chart, and exchange ideas freely. The one distant team member couldn't see the flip chart, nor pick up a marker to add to it. He also couldn’t see the group's reaction to his suggestions, or sense that the group was listening to him at all. The difference was the cues.

People want to participate, to contribute, and to be heard. In our virtual team stage, anyone who is away from the others is normally at a big disadvantage, as in the previous example. The Bionic Teamwork approach would put all ten at their individual computers with headsets, so everyone on this small team could communicate on an equal playing field.

In virtual meetings, leaders also need to be sure that all team members have equal access to and participate in videoconferencing technology. Today, any meeting room can be outfitted with videoconference technology for as low as the approximate cost of a coast-to-coast U.S. coach-fare airplane ticket (around $2000). This technology eliminates one of the most common mistakes—having some people participate via videoconference, while others only link by conference call. The result is an unequal opportunity to view and participate in the meeting, as well as an uneven exchange of communication cues. The result is always broken communication and teamwork.

With live videoconferencing, people no longer have to be in a videoconference room to participate in a videoconference meeting with others who are. Desktop video camera technology exists today that can let people working from home offices, hotels, and mobile locations (through laptop computers) use desktop videoconference technology so that all can view each other’s faces, no matter where in the world the people happen to be. Improvements in bandwidth and video compression technology make today’s live videoconference images significantly more natural than the Charlie Chaplain versions that were so distracting in years past.

4.   People still need to travel.

Leaders and teams are still in a significant transition, learning how we can create trust and rapport from afar. Technology, used well, will reduce the need to travel, but not eliminate it.

The big difference in travel for leaders to create Bionic Teamwork is in the purpose of the trip. Virtual teams travel to do the work. Bionic Teams travel to build relationships. When leaders and members of the Bionic Team are in the same location, they spend every minute being fully “present” with each other. They dedicate a large chunk of time to evaluate their communication needs and practices, and then identify ways to communicate better. They build the relationship infrastructure that will flourish when they once again return to their distant locations.

5.   Expect a miracle from technology, because you can create it yourself.

Being on the same email system or conference call doesn’t make a team. Technology provides the infrastructure. Leaders have to apply it to their team. The plug and play myth is dead. If technology hasn’t produced a noteworthy improvement in team cohesion and results, then the leader and the team have not yet created Bionic Teamwork. When they do, the results are remarkable.

For example, when it comes to live team collaboration from afar, web conferencing can actually deliver a superior result to face-to-face, often speeding decisions and the project result by 25 to 90 percent. Electronic team-rooms speed collaboration in a 24/7 environment, improving team participation, speeding feedback, and increasing customer satisfaction. Videoconferencing saves millions of dollars in travel costs and millions more in productivity gains because people aren’t in airports.

With new technology and new methods, teams no longer have to be in one place to be a high-performance, high-interaction team, with a heart. In fact, Bionic Teams produce profound results, breaking all records for previous kinds of teams. Technology creates the infrastructure, but the team leader still needs to incorporate the technology into the team’s work in ways that enable the people to be dramatically better, faster, and stronger as a human team.

The rest is up to you

Any conversation about leadership today has to include how a leader uses technology to create a human touch and expand human results. It is not enough to have technology. Leaders of Bionic Teamwork very intelligently take advantage of the best that technology can offer to enable warm, cohesive teamwork, from afar. The leader must also get up to speed with new best practices that helped make other leaders, from afar, lead with a personal touch.

Relationships are too important to be left to chance. If you lead a team that has even one person who works somewhere else, the whole environment in which your team interacts must be in tune with the times. Plugging in or logging on doesn’t make a team. Leaders, that’s your job. How are you using technologies to make your team more productive and cohesive?

Jaclyn Kostner, Ph.D., is the author of the newly released Bionic eTeamwork (Dearborn), and also Virtual Leadership (Warner Books) and Knights of the Tele-Round Table (Warner Books) which have been translated into languages around the world, and made the best-seller lists in the U.S. and Europe. Her company, Bridge the Distance, delivers online and onsite workshops to improve team collaboration and results. Kostner, also a professional speaker worldwide, has served as an expert to The Wall Street Journal, CNNfn, Time, USA Today, and USA Radio. Contact her directly at jkostner@bionicteam.com.

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