Unleashing your leadership potential for breakthrough results
With the increasing growth of worldwide organisations and improved methods of electronic communication, virtual teams are growing in number and importance. As a team leader, you may well find yourself asked to lead a team of people who are spread across countries and continents and who rarely, if ever, meet each other in person. Clearly, leading such a team presents particular problems.
In two instalments, we will explore the characteristics of virtual teams to help you understand the ways in which such groups differ from other teams and the implications for you as a virtual team leader. You also find out how to establish effective ways of working with the members of virtual teams and how to bring your team to a successful close.
What do you think of when you hear the term ‘virtual team’? You may think that the term implies a team that isn’t really a team but an illusion, perhaps because the term ‘virtual reality’ is often used to describe the apparent reality of a computer-generated image.
Virtual teams are ones made up of people in different physical locations. They can be in different cities in the same country or different cities in a number of countries. They are work groups often span far-flung offices, shared workspaces, private homes and hotel rooms. Armed with laptops, Wi-Fi and mobile phones, most professionals can do their jobs from anywhere.
The appeal of forming virtual teams is clear. The employees can manage their work and personal lives more flexibly and they have the opportunity to interact with colleagues around the country or world. Companies can use the best and lowest-cost global talent and significantly reduce their real estate costs.
But virtual teams are hard to get right. In a recent Indian study of 70 such groups, it was found that 82 percent fell short of their goals and 33 percent rated themselves as largely unsuccessful. An American study done three years ago on IT projects outsourced to virtual work groups found that 66 percent failed to satisfy the clients’ requirements.
As the team manager, therefore, first of all, you must comprehend the challenges of being a virtual team leader. Let us look at a few consequences of virtual team members rarely meeting face-to-face and the associated challenges waiting for you as the team leader.
1. A clear, common and shared sense of purpose may not exist. (Challenge: How to ensure that meaningful conversation occurs in which team members can explore, consider and agree the importance of the team’s work to themselves, individually and collectively and to the organisation.)
2. The remoteness of team members restricts the formation of relationships and a strong sense of team identity. (Challenge: How to build a genuine interest in each other and a strong sense of connection and mutual interdependence in achieving success.)
3. The team members hold back from expressing their views and saying what they really think. (Challenge: How to establish mutual trust and respect that will enable the team members to be open and honest with each other.)
4. Misunderstandings due to inadequate non-verbal communication. (Challenge: How to compensate for not being able to notice, appreciate and understand the significance of non-verbal cues.)
5. Misunderstandings due to different interpretations of the meanings of words and phrases, especially between people from different countries. (Challenge: How to avoid making assumptions that all team members have the same understanding of the language being used and explore the potential for misunderstandings.)
6. Inconvenient times to arrange team meetings arising from people working in different time zones. (Challenge: How to be fair and consistent in handling the effects of different time zones on individual work patterns.)
Strive to establish clever ways of team members working together when your virtual team is formed. To do so, invest time in examining and exploring the process of how the team’s going to work, as well as agreeing with the members the objectives, planning and organisation of the work of the team.
If your virtual team is permanent, you’re probably the line manager of all members; they report directly to you and so maintaining priorities is fairly straightforward. But if your virtual team is temporary, such as a project team, the members may report to you for their work on your virtual team’s project as well as to a line manager who expects them to do work for him.
In the latter case, you may experience that you and several line managers are competing for the time and attention of your team members to complete different work priorities. Your team members can find themselves being pulled in different directions as a result of having more than one boss.
Work on ‘getting your ducks in a row’, which means that everyone’s pulling in the same direction. Gain the commitment of the team members – and for temporary teams the agreement of each member’s line manager too – to spend enough time on your project to progress and complete it by doing the following:
1. Establish the importance of your project to your organisation or business by clarifying the benefits of completing it and the consequences of not completing it, by its deadline. Check and agree these aspects with your senior managers.
2. Explain to your team members the importance and benefits of completing the project to your organisation and emphasise the unique contribution you expect each team member to make to the success of the project.
3. Explain to the relevant line managers the importance and benefits of the project to your organisation.
4. Clarify with all team members the time commitment required from them based on their role in the project: the amount of time, days of the week, critical dates and times such as video conferences at important project milestones and so on.
5. Discuss and review regularly with your team members whether they’re experiencing any problems in fulfilling their commitments to your project and supporting them to resolve any tensions or conflicts over competing work priorities with their line managers.
Virtual teams should come together in person at certain times. Here are the stages at which it’s most critical:
An initial meeting, face-to-face, if possible and using video if not, will go a long way toward introducing teammates, setting expectations for trust and candour and clarifying team goals and behavioural guidelines. Eye contact and body language help to kindle personal connections and the ‘swift trust’ that allows a group of strangers to work together before long-term bonds develop.
This relates to bringing new people onto a virtual team. The best approach is to give your teammates the same in-person welcome you gave the group – fly (or bring) them into the headquarters or another location to meet with you and others who will be important to their success. Encourage them to videoconference with the rest of their teammates. It is also recommended of pairing newcomers with a mentor who can answer questions quickly but personally—the equivalent of a friendly colleague with an office around the corner.
Virtual team leaders need to continually motivate the members to deliver their best but e-mail updates and weekly conference calls are not enough to sustain momentum. In the absence of visual cues and body language, misunderstandings often arise, especially on larger teams. Team members begin to feel disconnected and less engaged and their contributions to the project decline. So, get people together to celebrate the achievement of short-term goals or to crack tough problems.
(Lionel Wijesiri is a retired corporate director counting three decades of senior management experience. He is now an independent consultant and a freelance journalist. He may be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org)
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