Leading Virtual Teams - When the cat is away do the mice play? By Tim Browne

by 22 Sep 2010

When the leader is out of sight from their team does distance make the heart fonder or the does the team wander? 

Over recent decades organisations are becoming more willing to set up and utilise virtual teams. While this brings many advantages for the organisation and individual employees it also presents significant challenges for leaders trying to organise and inspire their teams from afar.

Comments we often hear from leaders of virtual teams include:

 “How do I know my team are doing what I asked them?  Are they even working?”

“Can I trust them?  Do they trust me?”

“I don’t know what’s going on!”

“At times I worry that I am micro-managing and at others whether I am doing enough?”

“How do I help a team to work together effectively and harmoniously when they have only ever met once or twice?”

Leading Virtual Teams

While many principles of effective leadership apply to both traditional face-to-face teams and virtual teams, the challenges of working within a geographically dispersed team can often require leaders to take their people management skills to a higher level.  To effectively lead virtual teams, leaders need to focus on five key areas: 

  • Building a positive virtual team culture
  • Developing our leadership credibility in a virtual environment
  • Communicating within a virtual team
  • Managing the tough stuff virtually (performance management etc)
  • Understanding individual’s needs within our virtual teams

When communicating in a virtual team there is the tendency to rely one-way, sterile mediums of communication such as email. Emails are usually task oriented, and contain no social conversation which is so critical for building relationships.

The leader of a virtual team has to find or create a shared context that enables team members to see that they are similar in some important aspects to others in their team.

Creating a Shared Context

  • Involve the team when setting a shared culture
  • Focus more on the things you share than those you don’t
  • Have clear specific, measurable goals, but also have broader, purpose driven goals

Creating Norms

  • The perceived distance barrier can make it harder for leaders to manage poor performance or behaviour
  • Expectations need to be communicated frequently, and followed through on
  • To sustain norms a self-regulating culture is required where the team members have the permission and the responsibility to manage team behaviour
  • This can be done through ‘non-negotiable behaviours’ - Rather than imposing a set of your own expectations ask your virtual team to contribute towards coming up with a list of behavioural expectations that they would like to adhere to.

A final hint for leaders of virtual teams is to regularly touch base with team members about their workload and priorities. To avoid micro-managing staff balance your discussions about specific tasks with a conversation about the broader areas of responsibility within their role. These are sometimes referred to as Key Result Areas (KRA’s). Be clear on what you believe to be the focus and output of their job and ask them to be just as clear with you.

Remember – not everyone likes to communicate in the same way. Take some time out to ask each team member how they prefer to communicate, what times are best for them, and what they need to know to do their job.

Check out a free download of Virtual Team Hints and Tips.