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Top Ten Tips for leading a Virtual Team

As organizations continue to expand and adapt to today’s business needs, the number of people working in teams with colleagues and managers separated from them by many miles (and often different time zones), is growing.  In fact, the number of those who are not self-employed and yet regularly work from home, has grown by 115% since 2005, nearly 10x faster than the rest of the workforce. (source: GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com)

In the past, new managers had what now seems like a luxury: being able to cut their teeth on traditional collocated teams: groups of people, sitting down the hall from one another, who met up in conference rooms to hash out what they were trying to achieve and how to get there. Unfortunately, today’s work environment no longer guarantees that learning curve. Many first-time managers find themselves assigned to a team of subordinates scattered far and wide.

Managing a virtual team can feel overwhelming. It requires you to navigate many different challenges that can have an impact on individual productivity, communication, goal alignment, consensus on priorities, managing conflict, trust and building relationships. These all have the potential to derail the effectiveness and performance of the team. Making a challenging situation more difficult is the fact that most organizations lack clear policies on how to manage virtually.

Some companies are now moving away from allowing telecommuting and thus virtual teams. But a review of recent research studies reveals if you ask the employees themselves, they will list a number of important benefits of telecommuting, including: increased productivity, lower stress, higher morale, trust and engagement. Companies that support telecommuting also report lower overhead costs and lower employee turnover.

Are you currently leading a virtual team or considering implementing a telecommuting policy? Here are some helpful tips that will help you get the most out of your virtual team:

  1. Develop a Team Charter: Developing a focused and clear Team Charter creates structures and guidelines for team interaction. This is crucial and should be one of the first activities of the team. Since culture has an impact on team behavior, it’s important to discuss and establish operating rules—especially for activities such as how meeting times are scheduled, the decision-making process, expectations about participation and debate, and methods for expressing disagreements.
  2. Hold Regular Team Meetings: Ensure that your virtual team has regular scheduled team meetings (along with corresponding technology – see Tip #3). In addition, every team meeting should have a clear agenda sent out beforehand. This provides the necessary time for people to formulate their thoughts and questions. Make it a rule to distribute a short recap after each meeting so that everyone understands what occurred, decisions made and individual accountabilities for follow-on action items with due dates.
  3. Integrate Diverse Technology: The use of rich media, such as live video streams or virtual meetings, can make virtual interactions feel more realistic; mixing media, such as the use of forums, vlogs, blogs, and discussion groups allows people to interact in a style most comfortable to them; and don’t forget the use of simple technologies, such as a personal phone call that can help motivate a virtual worker, knowing they are not out of sight or out of mind. The greatest gift a manager can give an employee is undivided time and attention.
  4. Ensure Equal Participation: It is always important for any team to ensure that all team members participate during team meetings. However, the challenge to get all team members to participate increases exponentially for virtual teams. Be sure everyone participates by soliciting opinions and polling participants using technology. For those who are reluctant to contribute, consider using pre-meetings and taking specific subjects offline, as appropriate. Set ground rules about equal participation and solicit ideas that will support this (i.e. rotating which members lead meetings, take notes, etc.)
  5. Be Creative with Team Bonding: For example, after your team achieves a particular goal, organize a virtual reward ceremony. Send a small present (if allowed) to all team members and get everyone to open it at the same time during a video call. Virtually celebrate birthdays or other special occasions with all team members. Implement a peer recognition program with clear criteria, that once awarded gets recognized by senior leadership.
  6. Invest in Socializing Pre-existing Teams: If you inherit a strong pre-existing subteam (everyone knows each other and works excellently together) bear in mind that these teams may create even more barriers if they begin working virtually with other, unfamiliar, team members. People in strong pre-existing teams are more reluctant to share information as they have a method that ´works´. Invest in building relationships between the whole team or, recruit someone new in every location and start from scratch. Another option? Purposely mix up members of subteams on different projects/assignments so that they get to know each other.
  7. Treat Time Zones Fairly: With teams spread across different time zones, you may have a very short window to meet with some members or the whole team. Implement a policy of rotating the times for meetings to make sure one member is not always waking up early for meetings or another is not going home too late.
  8. Be Culturally Sensitive: Being culturally aware in a virtual environment, where people are based around the world, is even more important than in face to face settings. (However, even if your team members are not stationed in different countries they can still have cultural differences.) It´s crucial you have an awareness of the cultural differences in your team and promote cultural training for all members. For example - Susan sends short and “very direct” emails to other team members. If they don’t know that’s part of her culture, others may feel uncomfortable and feel she’s treating them poorly. Time spent clarifying team norms around communication methods is a worthy investment for virtual teams, avoiding eroded trust due to misunderstandings down the line.
  9. Be Available: It can be isolating working virtually. Don’t make team members feel you are absent; be in regular contact to talk not just about their day-to-day duties, but beyond that to general queries about their day, stress levels, general wellbeing (emotionally and physically). Set aside specific calls to only focus on their professional development and ask how you can better support them. Always ensure that your team members know what your weekly schedule is so they know when and how to contact you.
  10. Help Team Members Develop Trust and Relationships: The importance of trust cannot be overstated. It is built by members adhering to their commitments and investing in relationships with other team members. Provide your team members with the time to develop relationships. Allow time to share some personal information such as hobbies, vacations, etc. to find commonalities and areas in which they share interests. Encourage team members to have frequent, non-scheduled contact. Frequent contact keeps connections between virtual workers fresh. Meet face-to-face at least once per year. This helps create bonds between team members that cannot happen with virtual contact alone.

If you are an experienced team leader, you will probably be thinking that most of these tips really apply to any team whether co-located or virtual. We agree! So what’s different about leading a virtual team? It’s harder to effectively lead when your team members are virtual. The same best practice Team Leadership techniques apply but virtual teams require more focus, time, structure, communication and creativity to help them form into a high performing team.

Surely many of you are facing this new world of either working or leading virtually. What has worked for you? What do you wish your manager/team leader would do to help you feel more connected to the rest of the team? Share your experience so we can pool our learning and share best practices with one another! (e-mail ODLS Director Dana Henry, dhenry@donahue.umassp.edu)

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