As the world of work changes to be more global and more flexible, leaders are much more likely to be responsible for leading a team of virtual workers. Research indicates that virtual teams provide a lot of benefits for organizations including increase in employee retention and an increase in productivity. However, leaders are finding that they need to adjust their leadership style in order to get their virtual teams to that more productive state.
Generally, leaders of virtual teams do the same things as leaders of in-person teams, including setting expectations, providing direction, communicating vision, building trust, having regular one-on-one conversations and team meetings, holding team members accountable for their work, and developing them. However, how they do these things differs when they lead virtual teams.
This bring up the question, how do leaders get the best out of their virtual team members? They need to focus on two key areas: clear communication and providing direction.
Communication is the biggest area where leaders need to fine tune their style for virtual team members. There are a variety of technology tools out there that can help virtual teams with communication depending on their team culture and needs.
Video conferencing (e.g. Skype, GoToMeeting or Zoom) gives team members the opportunity to not just hear words, but to also read body language and get other visual cues that ultimately help to get work done. It helps to build social connection, too, because of the face-to-face experience, even if it is on a screen. Try video conferencing for just about any kind of meeting you conduct: one-on-ones, team meetings, client meetings, project meetings, etc. If you lead teams where some members are co-located in an office and others are virtual, having each person log in individually to a team meeting via video conferencing can help to level the playing field. You won’t have the people in the office talking to each other and forgetting to look at their virtual co-workers on the screen.
We know that a lot of work gets done through casual interactions such as stopping by someone else’s office or having hallway conversations. Instant messaging (e.g. Facebook Messenger or Whatsapp) and old-fashioned phone calls can help to replace those in-person interactions. Especially as a leader, you do not want your only interaction with your virtual team members to be formal one-on-ones and team meetings. Touch base regularly by picking up the phone or instant messaging to stay in constant contact about work and to build relationships. When you model this behavior, your team is more likely to use these same techniques with one another, building a stronger and more connected team.
Consider creating an internal social network or a virtual water cooler (e.g. Slack, Google hangouts, or Yammer) for social connections. Give team members an opportunity to get to know one another as people, rather than only as workers.
Recognize that you may need to be more specific in the direction that you give your virtual team members. You may need to assign specific tasks to individuals. When teams are co-located and you use the divide-and-conquer strategy for getting work done, it can be easier for team members to recognize when someone needs some extra help from others in order for the team to accomplish its goals. But when teams are dispersed, it can become more challenging to spot those situations early. By being specific about tasks and deliverables, you help to mitigate the risk of a team member falling behind to the point of not being able to deliver.
You may want to track tasks and commitments on a shared collaboration site (e.g. Asana, Monday, or Google Drive). A dashboard where everyone can see exactly what is expected helps to head off any gaps in communication and provides access to everyone at all times.
A simple technique for ensuring that everyone is on the same page is to share screens during meetings to let someone else see your notes, a spreadsheet, a presentation you’re working on, or a website you’re referring to. This is just like showing someone a piece of paper in the office. With screen sharing, you have the opportunity to not just talk about something, but to show them something as well. Along similar lines, you can share even if you are sketching on a piece of paper. Just make sure you use pen, and then hold your sketch up to the camera to share it with everyone in your meeting. Screen sharing goes a long way toward ensuring shared understanding.
If you are finding that your traditional approach to leading a team is not getting you the same results with your virtual team, try fine tuning your leadership style just a little in these areas of communication and direction. Try these ideas to start.