How to lead a virtual team

"Two thirds of employees value flexibility and would sacrifice salary to get it"

The dinosaurs became extinct because they did not know how to adapt to a fast changing environment. If you plan to lead a professional team over the next 10 years and don’t adapt to the nuances of leading virtual teams you could unfortunately suffer the same fate.

how-to-effectively-lead-a-virtual-team

Leadership is about getting results through others.  Your best resources may not be able to co-locate with you and you may never meet them in person.  Fortunately getting results from virtual teams is not particularly difficult provided you understand the pitfalls and there are of course many benefits to working as a virtual team.

Inexperienced leaders will try to use the same approaches online that work in the conventional office, often with disastrous consequences. A poorly functioning virtual team can become quite toxic and people can suffer burnout, lack of interest and lack of creativity. Processes can become inefficient and ultimately lead to poor business results.

On the other hand virtual teams under the guidance of informed leadership can be dynamic, creative, balanced and productive.

Virtual collaboration has been identified by Top100OnlineColleges  as one of the top 10 most important skills needed for the world of work in 2020.  Virtual collaboration is defined as “The ability to work productively, drive engagement and demonstrate presence as a member of a virtual team”.

Virtualisation of work is being driven by three main drivers:

  • Firstly the need for business to access specialised skills quickly as and when they are needed.
  • Secondly there is a new generation of skilled professionals who are prioritising more flexible working arrangements and improved work/life integration.
  • Third, the ubiquity of communications technology that has already become a part of daily existence both in the professional context and in the personal context.

Together these factors result in an increasingly mobile and specialised virtual workforce that crosses international borders, time zones and cultural differences.

Like everyone, as a leader of a virtual team you will inevitably experience ongoing challenges with this new mode of working. The environment will continue to change and new virtual reality technologies are just around the corner.

There are fortunately a few important things that you can be aware of that could lead to simple behavioural changes in your virtual leadership style and make all the difference to team productivity and performance.

IMPORTANT DIFFERENCES

Just being aware of and understanding the fundamental differences between virtual offices and a traditional co-located team is important. In co-located teams there are thousands of small but significant interactions between team members every day that contribute to developing unique inter-personal relationships.

Ultimately in a well nurtured environment these interactions lead to trust between team members. However many of these inter-personal interactions are missing in a virtual office.

Trust needs to be actively developed and nurtured. Team members will not necessarily contact each other unless encouraged to do so.  A leader has to bring people together regularly into the virtual “office” and intentionally create an open collaborative forum where people can build trust, open up and communicate at their peak potential.

Leaders should also recognise the importance of adapting their leadership style and practices to actively develop trust between team members. One practical way is to lead by example – if you don’t demonstrate trust to every individual in your virtual team then this will be noticed. Because you are the leader this lack of trust will then become an accepted norm within the team.

YOUR PRESENCE

Before “virtual offices” even existed I clearly remember my arrival at the office where I worked as a process engineer in the 1980’s. I immediately noticed who’s cars were parked in the parking garage. These people were present. Their presence (or absence) would materially impact on my goals for the day and as I walked up to the office I was subconsciously planning my interactions with each.

Today when I am online in my home office I now notice the presence indicators of my team (in my case using Skype). I can immediately tell which of my team members are available and online. The same underlying psychological impact applies – to me their green round Skype presence indicator is like an open door.

And here is the tough news for the leader.

In a virtual office environment you need to be always present. Your presence online is akin to your car being in the office parking bay. If you are not present, as far as your team members are concerned, you may as well be on the golf course. (No problem with that perception of course unless it becomes the everyday norm)!

Being present online means to”open your door” by ensuring your status is green – i.e. “I am available“.

When you have people in your team working in different time zones you will need to be online for them too. This will also require you to design and set clear boundaries as to exactly when you will be online for your various regional team members. Failure to set these boundaries will result in you being on duty all the time and you will inevitably suffer burnout down the line.

ESTABLISH GUIDELINES FOR ONLINE MEETINGS

A good facilitator will understand that online meetings can actually have several advantages over normal meetings.  For example introverted people can sometimes find it easier to participate online because they feel less intimidated in what might otherwise feel like a large group.   Because side-conversations are not possible it is far easier for everyone to focus on the main topic.

Leaders of virtual teams can maximise the value of online meetings by establishing simple guidelines at the outset,  for example:

  • Meetings always start and end on time
  • Only one person to speak at a time
  • Everyone has a chance to contribute
  • At the end of the segment or session check with each person whether they have anything else to add
  • Always address the meeting through the leader / facilitator to improve flow of communication

Some of these guidelines relate to technology,  for example:

  • Microphones should be on mute unless speaking
  • Use headsets or earphones to reduce echo
  • Use screen sharing to display the Agenda or any other relevant documents

Most tools like Skype work very well for virtual team meetings.   It is important however to make sure that everyone has good equipment and a stable connection,  otherwise attending to technical challenges can be very disruptive.  Over time as the virtual team establishes their ways of working together these issues will be ironed out,  but it remains the responsibility of the meeting coordinator to ensure that appropriate guidelines are adhered to.

PROACTIVELY SHOW INTEREST IN TEAM MEMBERS

The best leaders I have worked for have always been proactive in showing interest in me as a person ahead of my work.

In practical terms as a leader this means contacting your team members frequently, just to find out how they are doing. In a traditional office this happens by chance as you grab a coffee. But in a virtual office as the leader you need to go out of your way to make these opportunities.

Call your team members on a regular basis. You can decide to set aside a formal time to do this, or leave it informal but make sure it is still regular. Make sure these interactions are not all about work.

At the end of an online conversation if your team member always feels good they will be open to your approaching them anytime. If on the other hand you are always task focussed and don’t take an interest in the wellbeing of the team member you run the risk of shutting down more meaningful conversation. You might then be missing some important element in that persons life that is impacting on performance. You will also run the risk of that person disengaging.

If a team member disengages you will see that they are never online and always insisting on appointments and an agenda in advance. Then something probably needs to be done.

BUILD RELATIONSHIPS THROUGH ALLOWING SMALL TALK

When people get together it is important that they connect at several emotional and professional levels before getting down to business. This often takes the form of “small talk” where they discuss the weather, family, plans for the weekend and so on. This is a vital part of human communication.

In a virtual meeting this small talk should be encouraged before getting on with the formal meeting. Together with humour and light hearted banter your team will become more more relaxed, form vital connections, and as a result become productive and open with each other.

Always set aside a few minutes for the team dynamics to kick in before starting the formal agenda.

UNDERSTAND TECHNOLOGY LIMITS

Communication is a complex process involving both verbal and non verbal cues. When using technology most of these signals are missing and the other party is forced to makes assumptions.

e-mail can be particularly bad in conveying emotion – a poorly written e-mail can come across as both unprofessional and impersonal. This can lead to people totally mis-interpreting your intentions. With e-mail you don’t have the opportunity to show emotion therefore what the person sees is only what you write. Spelling errors and badly constructed rushed sentences can come across as disrespectful.

Be mindful of being too formal as well. Lighten up your e-mail communications with your virtual team members but keep it professional. Don’t overuse emoticons in business communications – if they are needed to get your message across then the message probably should not be conveyed in writing. Call them instead.

Several teams now use tools like Slack to replace informal e-mail communications. This appears to work well, but then the whole team needs to participate in this channel.

Use video when possible. This can add a significant dimension to interpersonal communications and most computers are now equipped with the facility. Once you have established that initial repoire using video you can always switch off the camera and continue with audio only.

NEVER DELEGATE USING TECHNOLOGY

One of my pet peeves is the use of task management software to delegate work without consultation.

It is easy to do this and there are many project management software solutions for teams that make it very easy to fall into this trap. As a leader you should never allocate work without consultation.

If you need something done then discuss it first with your team member and then use the task manager to record the decision. Don’t add detailed tasks to someone else’s to do list or it will come across as micro managing.

ALWAYS REINFORCE THE “WHY”

Good leaders clearly see the future vision and are good at communicating.

In virtual teams this need is even more acute – so you should constantly be communicating the vision.

When all the non verbal cues are missing in day to day interaction alignment will weaken over time. Constantly reminding your team of the deeper purpose of their work and how it will impact their future is extremely important.

If all you do in your regular meetings is discuss action lists and minutes of meeting with your team (and neglect to remind people of the “why”) then the team members will soon lose their motivation and sense of direction.

There are of course many evolving good techniques for leading virtual teams. This is a vital new leadership skill that is still poorly understood and the environment will continue to evolve and change, challenging every leader. With the entry into the job market of a new generation of digital natives, learning how to lead virtual teams is going to be an essential capability in order to succeed in future.