In this instalment, you discover how to establish a few clever ways of working, which help you to address the challenges of leading a virtual team and ensure that your team is productive.
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.
Ducks in a row
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 working on a specific 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 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.
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 project sponsor or senior managers.
Explain to your team members the importance and benefits of completing the project to your organisation and emphasising the unique contribution you expect each team member to make to the success of the project.
Explain to the relevant line managers the importance and benefits of the project to your organisation.
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. Support all team members, if required, to discuss their project commitments with their line manager to gain agreement, resolve any conflicting priorities and so on.
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.
Involve your senior managers in resolving major disagreements about priorities with line managers only after you try to resolve these problems yourself.
Your team members, when normally ‘out of sight’ of you and each other because they’re dispersed over 10s, 100s or even 1000s of miles, may sometimes feel that they’re also out of your mind; they may think that you don’t give them enough attention
Out of sight
Your team members, when normally ‘out of sight’ of you and each other because they’re dispersed over 10s, 100s or even 1000s of miles, may sometimes feel that they’re also out of your mind; they may think that you don’t give them enough attention.
Overcoming these obstacles isn’t about high-definition video conferencing; it’s about effective leadership that accounts for the nuances of the virtual environment.
Killer 1: Lack of everyday non-verbal, face-to-face communication
Virtual teams lack the informal, everyday conversations that co-located employees take for granted – sharing information at the lunch table, solving problems at the tea-break. They’re deprived of non-verbal cues that indicate whether a colleague is on board or annoyed. Virtual employees can go days without contact, leading to feelings of isolation. Virtual employees who feel isolated are less likely to contribute to the team, which hinders innovation and effectiveness.
Solution 1: Communication quantity is vital. To increase everyday interactions, create smaller interdependent tasks and develop partnerships, giving virtual employees goals to achieve together.
Solution 2: A strong one-to-one relationship between managers and virtual team members can reduce feelings of isolation. A research with 40 global teams showed that when the leader-team member relationship was strong and the leader communicated frequently, the virtual team member was more likely to contribute to team decision-making, which increased innovation.
Killer 2: Lack of social interaction
For all its perks, working remotely can be draining. Team members miss out on the office banter, the working friendships that get us through a tough Tuesday. It’s difficult for virtual team members to see how their work fits into the big picture, so they become despondent and demotivated.
Solution 1: Although spontaneous written communication like Instant Messaging can feel forced, effective virtual leaders use it to increase social interactions where time zones allow.
Solution 2: Building specific ‘social time’ into the team calendar helps, as does starting every meeting with a quick update on everyone’s lives – weekend plans, upcoming holidays.
Solution 3: Team members should regularly communicate each other’s progress so that everyone can see how their work contributes to the overall team effort.
Killer 3: Lack of trust
You can’t see what other people are doing, you don’t get responses immediately and you’re rarely working (or in some cases awake) at the same time. It’s easy to see how virtual working breeds distrust. Trust can be a big problem when only some team members are virtual; office workers fall for ‘shirking from home’ stereotypes, while those at home feel hard done by for missing out on long lunches and cupcakes in the kitchen.
Solution 1: Awareness of each other’s contributions helps to build trust. As well as setting clear goals and expectations,
leaders should make sure that individual roles and responsibilities are publicised within the team. Virtual leaders should create a strategy to communicate each team member’s weekly activities and availability.
Solution 2: To build the team’s belief that their colleagues are competent, leaders should give constant feedback and showcase each team member’s achievements.
Killer 4: Cultural clashes
Miscommunication is rife in virtual teams; even more so when the team spans cultures. A message that seems a brief summary to a team member in Tel Aviv might come across rude to one in Washington, while the American’s would-be polite message (‘thank you in advance…’) seems bland to their Israeli counterpart.
Solution 1: Virtual leaders should recognise and capitalise on team diversity; for instance, by building a ‘team profile’, which shares each team member’s experience, expertise and personal information. Leaders can foster cultural understanding by sharing cultural customs within the team.
Solution 2: To minimize conflict virtual teams should agree on team customs; ground rules for the way in which they interact. Customs align everyone’s expectations – for example, a maximum response time to emails, agreed technology for sharing and updating files or guidelines on appropriate language in emails.
Killer 5: Loss of team spirit
While ‘sticking-together’ builds gradually in face-to-face teams, virtual teams often feel like no more than globally dispersed individuals working on the same project. It’s difficult to build an ‘all for one and one for all’ spirit via disjointed emails.
Solution 1: Virtual leaders are responsible for creating a clear and compelling direction for the team and making sure each individual is connected to the team vision. Team members’ individual goals should be linked to the team’s overall goal and to each other.
Solution 2: Team spirit won’t materialize overnight but is created through thousands of everyday interactions. Leaders need to encourage cohesiveness every time they communicate – for example, creating a positively loaded team nickname or communicating a success story.
(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 email@example.com)