Leading Virtual Teams – But Real People – Effectively

Leading Virtual Teams – But Real People – Effectively
Summary: Virtual teams offer challenges for the team’s leaders, members, and Learning and Development professionals, as they meet the team’s Learning and Development requirements, often in a cross-cultural context.

How To Effectively Lead Virtual Teams

Virtual teams offer challenges for the team’s leaders and members—and for L&D professionals, as they meet the team’s L&D requirements, often in a cross-cultural context.

The team is virtual, but the people in that team are real. They have real hopes and fears, ambitions and interests; knowledge and skill needs and—maybe most importantly—communications needs.

Team Leaders

Balvinder Singh Powar, the Director of BOOSTER Space Industries, believes that location’s less important than the value provided by any individual worker. Writing for FT | IE Business School Corporate Learning Alliance, Powar says, "Technology and globalization mean we can access the best talent anywhere in the world—but this requires the ability to lead virtual teams."

His tips for a successful virtual team-leading are:

  • Be extra clear, and write it down. Decisions might be transmitted, but does everyone fully understand them? Ensure instructions are Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, and Time-bound (SMART).

Every meeting needs a note keeper to set the agenda and provide a post-meeting summary. This helps avoid confusion and allows participants, especially non-native speakers, to check whether they’ve understood the discussion correctly.

  • Virtual meetings spanning time zones should be rotated to fairly distribute among the geographical areas the strain of connecting at untimely hours.
  • Attend quickly to staff concerns and conflicts. Problems or questions from remote staff can be harder to express or elicit than in face-to-face meetings. Leaders should address problems as soon as possible to avoid entrenching conflicts. Organize calls to discuss less vital, even non-work, matters to ease tensions.
  • Use the lowest common denominator technology. Ideally, face-to-face meetings should take place at least once a year or at the start of a major project. But, while video conferences are relatively simple, don’t rule out using the telephone.
  • Celebrate online. Share successes, whether it’s toasting a deal or enjoying a team pizza. Even if that means doing so awkwardly on-screen. It all helps build team spirit.

For those who want to develop their virtual team-leading capabilities, W. Gibb Dyer, Jr.’s book, ‘Team Building: Proven Strategies for Improving Team Performance’, outlines the 4 ‘Cs’ of team development—Context, Composition, Competencies, and Change. It examines how to solve specific team-related problems and discusses teambuilding in different types of teams (including virtual teams).

Team Members

Rather than work in the same office, virtual team members work in different time zones and/or places—often at home. They may never meet their co-workers face-to-face. Challenges for team members include:

  • Poor and infrequent communication
    It can hinder innovation, effectiveness and decision making. Moreover, not being in regular contact can prevent team members from creating working friendships and can leave them feeling isolated. They may not see how their work and projects fit as a whole, and become demotivated and despondent. Team leaders can create interdependent tasks and encourage partnerships within the team—but it’s also every team member’s responsibility to increase everyday interactions.
  • Lack of trust
    Because virtual team members rarely work at the same time, they can’t see what others are doing and they don’t get immediate responses. These problems can be averted by setting clear goals and expectations, as well as creating awareness of the contribution and achievements of every team member.
  • Diverse multicultural teams
    They often comprise people with conflicting customs, work habits, and values. Members prefer their own way of working, and leaders must find common grounds to manage them. To minimize conflicts, all team members should agree on the fact that common, acceptable work ethics and team customs foster cultural understanding.
  • Loss of team spirit
    Virtual teams can be more effective, cohesive and engaged through shared leadership. The team’s leaders should create a clear direction for the other members, ensuring everyone accepts a common goal and vision.
  • Physical distance
    It can foster cold, distant relationships among members—posing risks for the team’s competence and cohesion. Members feel unable to ask questions, and there are difficulties with the delegation. So, team leaders should pay individual attention to each member to create a sense of commitment and project ownership.
  • Time zone differences
    Use collaboration tools in order to help you minimize the time overlap between members. This will also result in the reduction of virtual meetings.
  • An over-lengthy daily routine
    It reduces worker concentration and motivation. Team members can feel exhausted if they’re required to stay at their computers for many hours at a time to correspond with colleagues operating in different time zones. Encourage team members to work ‘normal length’ days, even if they’re not ‘nine-to-five’.
  • Personal life and work-life imbalance
    Virtual team members often work in the same physical space where they go about their personal lives. So, work can affect team members' personal life—and the other way around. Harmonizing personal life and work life is crucial to the success of any virtual work.
  • Lack of clarity, direction, and priorities
    The hardest part of establishing a specific goal is maintaining it and keeping everyone focused. Overcoming this challenge for virtual teams requires planning, dedication, foresight, hard work—and getting all team members to engage with each other.

L&D Professionals

Richard Lowe, Director of Training and Digital Learning Solutions at the international HR and L&D specialist, Hewlett Rand, says L&D professionals can help virtual teams be successful by:

  • Researching virtual teamworking tools, software, and best practice approaches
  • Providing away-day facilitation to build trust, develop plans and effective team working
  • Developing high-performance virtual team leadership, and management skills and capabilities
  • Supporting adoption and development of effective virtual team communication, and management software skills and protocols
  • Sourcing or developing virtual teamworking online learning content, including content making virtual teams fully aware of cultural and team differences across geographical regions
  • Providing an open-door policy for consultancy and training support when virtual teams are having difficulties

You can evaluate these L&D activities, says Lowe, via:

  • Participant feedback from L&D interventions
  • LMS evaluation data, where relevant
  • Virtual team surveys and employee survey feedback
  • Holding review meetings to assess progress and determine development needs
  • Maintaining ongoing communication and dialogue with virtual team managers.

Hope you found all the information mentioned above helpful. You may always leave a comment below with your feedback and suggestions.