We live in a time where a lot of work is executed by teams that are geographically distributed. The definition of a virtual team is a group of people, working together for a particular purpose, who are based in different locations, and who mainly communicate electronically rather than face-to-face.
When you lead a virtual team, you have to overcome barriers of distance, personality and lack of time, while maintaining communication & progress through technology. It is also very common that the leader may not have line control or full time access to the team members.
So here are 4 keys to leading virtual teams more effectively:
The number one thing that a leader must do is set very clear expectations for performance. In order for a remote group to really come together as a team, they all must know EXACLTY what the other teammates own and are expected to do. Because the members of the team do not see each other every day, there is a premium put on being able to trust the other person and this can be easily broken if each is not held strictly accountable for a set of tasks and quality level. Creating a face-to-face orientation in the beginning of a project can really help the group form a stronger connection and trust. They come away with a sense of commitment to the team not just their responsibilities for the project.
Leading a virtual team is difficult because it requires someone to literally be in charge of activities they cannot see every day. For this reason, constant communication is a must. Creating a rhythm with communication and reporting is extremely helpful in keeping everyone motivated and engaged in the progress. Assigning smaller pieces of a project or task at a faster pace is much more effective with virtual teams.
The software systems that you put in place are a critical enabler of effective communications as well. It is very important that you have a software platform that facilitates team communication, stores files and knowledge, and acts as distributor of important information. There are now hundreds of new Web 2.0 tools that can be used to facilitate virtual work environments. The challenge is not finding a system it is simply assembling them to work best for the specific virtual team.
“If we are to enjoy the efficiencies and other benefits of the virtual organization, we will have to discover how to run organizations more on trust than on control. Virtuality requires trust to make it work; technology on its own is not enough.” Charles Handy.
Leaders must be able to trust a virtual team member because they will not be able to watch what they are doing on a day to day basis. Your accountability measures are critical and enforcing them are even more crucial.
Trust takes time to build which makes it more difficult to do in a virtual setting.
Connecting one-on-one with each team member is a must and making sure you communicate the big picture and how their role is tied to the overall success of the project will help keep engagement a priority.
One of the most effective ways that a virtual team can be inspired is by providing regular recognition of accomplishments. This is an area that suffers when compared with a traditional work environment. Since there is no one verbally applauding your ideas or telling you that you did a good job, people can become de-motivated working remotely. For this reason, it is very important for a manager to implement ways of constantly recognizing good work through emails, phone calls, and public postings.
Leaders have to hold the tension on how remoteness and time pressure change group and leadership behaviors. They have to stay visible when leading remotely and hold true to the accountability measures that are set.