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Come fire-walk with me

Jun 28, 20043 mins
IT LeadershipVoIP

Ways home-based businesspeople can motivate teams.

Ways home-based businesspeople can motivate teams.

In my prior corporate life, I was deficient when it came to team-building. I suspect most people who work for themselves would say the same. I didn’t want to walk across hot coals. I didn’t want to fall backwards into the arms of my coworkers. I wanted to do my job and go home.

But I must admit I now sympathize with the senior managers and human esources types who set up those silly weekend retreats. Why? Because they had to try something to whip up a little team spirit. It goes with the job.

I am walking a mile in their moccasins. And my feet hurt.

Most of us with home-based businesses rely on an informal network of colleagues and people in related trades. When a client calls on me to lead a project too big to handle on my own, I turn to my network of writers, editors, designers and so on. Everybody wins.

Recently, though, I’ve been involved in a couple of these group efforts that didn’t go well. When the client’s needs changed, when a deadline tightened up, the project leader failed to convince his confederacy to buckle down. With no performance reviews or pay raises at stake, he had few motivational arrows in his quiver.

Eager to avoid this problem, I called Dick Eaton, president of Leapfrog Innovations, a company that specializes in helping businesses improve teams through creative programs. I was skeptical myself, but Eaton and Carrie Kuempel, a Leapfrog client service team leader, offered plenty of advice for building virtual teams sans a trip to the burn ward.

The key to building any successful team is to do plenty of hard work at the outset. Start with a very clear charter, define the project and each member’s role as precisely as possible, then invite questions to further clarify goals and roles, Eaton says.

Most interesting to me was advice geared to teams of freelance contractors. How do you pull together a group of folks who are, practically by definition, independent?       

Leapfrog recommends this trick: Create a virtual water cooler by building an extra 15 minutes into the outset of a telephone meeting just for chat. “If a call’s scheduled for 1 p.m., start at 12:45 and just shoot the breeze,” Eaton says. “Maybe the team leader gets the ball rolling by asking everybody to name their favorite movie.”

“This can feel very contrived when you start out,” Kuempel adds. “But months down the road, people look forward to it.”

If your virtual team is spread out geographically, it might come as unwelcome news that the best way to build a strong virtual team is through a “face-to-face experience” – that is, an actual, in-the-flesh meeting. Research from NetAge, a leading virtual-work firm in West Newton, Mass., confirms the importance of pulling together such a meeting.  

This meeting should come early in a project, but not before your first teleconference. “Do some up-front work [via e-mail and conference calls], get your mission and roles defined,” Eaton says. “Then, as the heavy work is about to start, you have a face-to-face meeting.”

Have you found ways to create and motivate teams of freelancers? If so, please send them to me – I’ll share them in a future column.