Long-distance leadership for virtual team success

By Jennell Evans, CEO, Strategic Interactions, Inc

During the last decade there has been a significant increase in the number of people working on virtual teams. Leaders who are new to this way of working are asking, ‘How do I lead people that I don’t see?’ Companies like Yahoo have been in the news recently because they are struggling with how to balance the benefits of working remotely with the need for more face-to-face contact in the office.

Many companies have moved towards virtual teamwork due to benefits such as:

  • Increased capabilities and responsiveness to customer needs by leveraging the best talent located anywhere in the world.
  • Cost effectiveness through reduced office space requirements – most team members work from home or at customer sites, and
  • Diverse learning experiences for team members who can be on multiple virtual teams servicing different customers at the same time.

There are also challenges that virtual teams have to overcome in order to be their best, such as:

  • Time zone differences that can make it difficult to communicate in real time,
  • The lack of nonverbal components in team communications, which are integral in developing trust and clear messaging,
  • The difficulty of being able to detect lack of engagement in team members, which can lead to lower productivity and morale, and
  • Managers who are “digital immigrants” and not adept at using the latest technology, may be resistant to, or unskilled at leveraging all of the ways of communicating electronically.

Here are some tips for creating and leading effective virtual teams:

1. Have a face-to-face kick off meeting if possible, when the team first comes together. This helps to build trust among members and establish important social bonds. If in-person meetings are not possible, conduct a video conference.

2. Apply knowledge of group development stages. A virtual team goes through the same stages as do co-located teams. We often use The Drexler/Sibbet Team Performance Model to help leaders determine what stage a team is in, typical challenges that might arise in each stage, and how to lead the team towards a high level of performance.

3. Create agreements on how the team will work together, for example, scheduling meetings across time zones, team member roles and responsibilities, etc.

4. Establish guidelines for which medium to use for communication, email, chat, intranet, phone, video conference, etc.

5. Establish ground rules for virtual meetings. For example, turn off cell phones, use mute button when not speaking, etc.

6. Recognize and educate team members about cultural nuances between geographical areas where team members live or work. This will help reduce culture clashes and miscommunication.

7. Develop informal social bonds by spotlighting a member each week in a video or print interview about their professional background, family, hobbies, and other information that they are comfortable in sharing with the team.

Virtual teams will become even more popular as companies strive to optimize all resources, including talent and office space.

A longer version of this article first appeared at Stanton Chase Leadership