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March 31, 2020
Like many, Leadership Alliance is in a situation of having to virtualize what has traditionally been face-to-face work. At the best of times, managing a virtual team can be challenging. Have you ever called into a 20+ person virtual meeting and had multiple people try to talk at once? And communication is only one aspect of the challenges inherent in virtual teams.
However, virtual teams aren’t a new phenomena, and they do work! Indeed, when functioning well, virtual teams have some unexpected upsides.
Researchers have found that they tend to be more task-focused in their communication, have greater decision quality, and experience a greater sense of equity in real-world settings. Additionally, they can function as a leveler, making it easier for high level leaders to engage with workers who aren’t their direct reports.
Research and practice over the last 20 years have highlighted a few key elements of successful leaders of virtual teams. Here are some things to think about when going remote:
Research suggests that the most effective communication involves multiple channels – body language, facial expression, tone of voice, etc. Without face-to-face interaction, those channels become limited.
There are only so many ways to communicate virtually, so it’s important to think about how you want to get your message across to your virtual team. Using a variety of applications can help enrich your conversations in place of in-person interactions.
Video conferencing software is a great way to communicate virtually with your team and not miss those important non-verbal cues. When Forbes asked remote executives about video conferencing, the responses were overwhelmingly in favor of the benefits including improved connectivity of their team.
Don’t use video conferencing today? Start your research by studying up on the best video conferencing apps for businesses.
Building trust is an important part of leading any team, but it is crucial in a virtual team. Managers should establish trust at the early stages of collaboration to ensure greater team cohesion, which is associated with higher levels of performance. Virtual teams are more likely to be distrustful and blame their coworkers for failed communication rather than thinking about situational factors such as connectivity problems or a crying child demanding their attention.
Because high levels of trust are harder to achieve in virtual teams compared to face-to-face teams, one way to help mitigate this relationship is through documentation. Virtual teams who document their communication, both written and audio, have an easier time trusting their teammates compared to virtual teams who don’t have any sort of documentation.
Keeping your virtual meetings on track can be as simple as sending out or storing on a shared site the key takeaways and action items along with a video recording of the meeting. Technology inclined leaders may want to look into a note-taking app that offers team collaboration.
It’s hard to facilitate “water cooler conversations” when you don’t have a shared water cooler, or shared space of any sort! However, just because you’re working remotely doesn’t mean you should stop trying to have those conversations. Virtual teams often have a reduced sense of personalization and intimacy, so it’s important to maintain a sense of connectedness.
Remote leaders can be successful in doing this by investing in a relationship-based approach, with a focus on the development of the team. Brush up your “charismatic leadership” skills, because this type of leadership helps earn dividends here.
One of the toughest challenges for newly remote workers is going to be increased friction when trying to get things done. This is something we’re all familiar with – frustration at navigating unfamiliar computer applications, connectivity problems, and other technology issues. When teams lose trust in their ability to rely on technology needed to get the job done, they lose trust in their teams. Ensure that your team is familiar with any remote applications they will be using and that everyone has your IT Department on speed dial.
Not all friction will be technological, though. Do people usually just stop by your office to chat? You might suddenly become a bottleneck just by being hard to get a hold of. Be clear about when you’re “on” and available. It’s easy to tell if someone is at their desk, but harder to tell if someone is away from their computer.
Likewise, considering restructuring job responsibilities to accommodate the practical needs of getting the work done now that everyone is remote. Traditional hierarchical leadership becomes less effective with virtual teams, so one way to address this is to use either a more structured or a more shared leadership approach.
Just as with success, there are many factors in virtual leadership failure. Here are 3 common mistakes with the potential to trip up both you and your team:
To borrow a phrase from Marshal Goldsmith (2007), “What got you here won’t get you there.” Your virtual team is facing multiple novel challenges, and adapting to them will require thought and work on your part.
Ask yourself, “what skills and habits do I need to develop to rise to these challenges?” The way you and your people communicate, collaborate, and connect have changed. The tools they are using to do their work may have changed. Your avenues for motivating them have changed.
Anticipate the challenges you and your people will face… and head them off.
Given the differences between virtual teams and in-person teams, ignoring the need for technical and resource support is asking for trouble, as is not devoting extra effort to make sure new roles, responsibilities, and expectations are clear.
Your team’s jobs have shifted. Think about what you need from them, and what they need from each other, and ensure they have the resources and clarity needed to make that happen… before something goes wrong.
The consequences of being an overly hands-off leader are worse for remote teams than in-person ones. Leaders who are not deliberately pushing themselves to connect with and check in on their people will miss technological problems, faltering engagement, lack of clarity about goals, and diminishing confidence in process or coworkers.
It’s easy to postpone conversations and assume people will reach out to you for help. Challenge this assumption.
Heraclitus wrote that “the only constant in life is change,” which is equally true today as when it was written. Leading people who have been tossed unexpectedly into the sea of virtual teamwork is a significant change and challenge just by itself.
If you can anticipate some of these challenges, sidestep the pitfalls, and leverage best practices, you will be better able to handle the more run-of-the-mill unexpected challenges affecting your business.
However, be on guard. When under pressure, leaders tend to fall back on their old habits, so good intentions alone will not be enough to navigate these unfamiliar waters.
So, what are we at Leadership Alliance doing to ease the transition to telecommuting?
We are utilizing a multitude of communication channels including phone, e-mail, messaging, and video-conferencing to help keep conversations on topic and to the point. We have regularly scheduled check-in virtual meetings both with the leadership team and within our smaller teams.
We have invested in remote support from our IT provider to help us with slowed connections and technology issues, invested in secure remote connection solutions, and ensured that remote workers have access to reliable computers.
Finally, our team members have been tasked with spearheading new and creative projects, taking some of the load off leaders.
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by Peter Hegel, Ph.D. and Kayla Manley