How to Lead an Effective Virtual Team

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Thanks to the ever-increasing deployment of virtual teams, the modern office is increasingly defined by time zones, rather than walls. According to a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 66 per cent of multinationals, not to mention almost half of all organizations, use virtual teams, which can boost productivity and employee flexibility while reducing the time and cost of travel.

When it comes to brainstorming, project planning and setting goals, SHRM research suggests that virtual teams can be more effective than in-person teams. Virtual teams, however, are still considered inferior in some key areas. Traditional teams, for example, receive higher marks when it comes to developing trust, maintaining morale, monitoring performance and managing conflict. Furthermore, as the SHRM survey illustrated, virtual managers have a harder time monitoring individual and team performance and the absence of visual cues can make developing a shared understanding more difficult than in a physical meeting. Different time zones and cultural and technology barriers can also make collaboration more difficult.

These challenges, of course, can be addressed by promoting strong leadership behaviours and training virtual teams in skills to build relationships and trust while implementing processes and systems that allow them to collaborate more effectively. Unfortunately, according to our own research, these things aren’t happening, at least not at most companies. Simply put, best practices aren’t being implemented (or even clearly defined) enough. In fact, research indicates that less than 20 per cent of virtual teams receive training on how to work effectively as a virtual team, leaving most virtual leaders and their team members operating in unproductive ways. As a result, one-quarter of virtual teams fail to meet expectations.

To help better define the best practices that lead to success in a virtual setting, we studied 48 virtual teams across a range of industries. Our research included a survey of 427 virtual team members and leaders as well as data collected from 99 stakeholders familiar with the teams in our study, such as internal customers or team leaders’ managers. We also conducted an additional survey of 304 individuals who worked on separate virtual teams. We found several troubling statistics:

  • When evaluated by third-party stakeholders, 27 per cent of the 48 teams studied had overall performance rated as adequate or below adequate
  • When team members and leaders were asked to assess their own effectiveness, 17 per cent rated their own performance as adequate or less than adequate
  • Twenty-five per cent of the 304 people surveyed said their teams were not fully effective

Our follow-up research included interviews with 35 high-performing virtual leaders. And although the tactics and technology used by these successful virtual team leaders varied, we found that they all shared the ability to do four things exceptionally well: build trust and relationships, hold team members accountable, motivate their teams and implement processes that support virtual work and collaboration.

These attributes and the habits that accompany them fit into a framework known as the RAMP Model — Relationships, Accountability, Motivation and Process. This model can be used to describe leadership in general, but as this article notes, there are distinct differences when applying RAMP effectively in a virtual environment.  

RELATIONSHIPS

Relationships are built upon mutual trust, shared goals and common interests. They develop over time, through various interactions, and these interactions happen more naturally within teams that are co-located. When co-workers work in the same physical location, for example, they can take note of family photos and other personal items on each other’s desks. They can chat about weekend adventures over morning coffee and gain insights into personal lives over lunch.

Virtual co-workers lack these informal spontaneous opportunities to connect. As a result, virtual team leaders need to help build team member relationships, which can be done in a variety of ways. Here are some habits that virtual leaders shared with us, which you can implement at your own company:

  • Host virtual birthday parties and baby showers using WebEx, Live Meeting or GoToMeeting
  • Invite your team members to mail each other snacks or small tokens that represent their culture
  • Schedule a “virtual coffee break” once a week to allow employees to have 10–15 minutes of free discussion
  • Use FaceTime, Google Hangouts or other video chatting tools to stay in contact in a less formal way
  • Make “care calls” that do not have a work related agenda to connect with team members on a personal level
  • Partner team members from different locations to increase opportunities for them to connect and building trust
  • Get to know your team members on social media

ACCOUNTABILITY

Virtual employees need to take more individual responsibility to meet deadlines, so it is critical for someone to hold them accountable despite the fact that virtual managers have fewer opportunities to observe their employees.

To address this dilemma, project management software is an effective tool. Software programs such as Basecamp, WorkZone and Wrike can make each project visible to the entire team so that everyone concerned understands where their job fits into the big picture. The ability to share files, assign tasks and check due dates also allows team members to easily communicate next steps, whether it’s providing data or passing along a document for review.

Time-tracking software (such as TimeFox, Timesheet and Kronos) is also an effective tool for improving virtual team performance, allowing team leaders to track hours (especially helpful if you work with multiple clients and you’re trying to determine how much time you’re investing in each one).

Other habits that help leaders manage accountability and improve decision-making in a virtual environment include:

  • Develop metrics that focus on results, not number of hours worked
  • Involve employees in the early project planning stages so realistic deadlines can be developed
  • Give employees more autonomy by allowing them to determine the best way to organize their work
  • Schedule check-ins at key milestones with individual team members in order to assess progress, provide feedback and coaching,  and make required course corrections
  • Share calendars and action plans with the entire team so that everyone is aware of the status of a project

MOTIVATION

Virtual team members face frequent distractions and many unique challenges that can affect their motivation, especially if they work from home. Virtual workers often feel isolated and as a result can lose sight of why their individual contributions matter.

Here are some practical ways to keep your virtual team motivated:

  • Practice active listening; paraphrase what your employees say in order to confirm understanding, since there are more opportunities for misunderstandings without visual cues
  • Don’t assume that your instructions are clear; have team members summarize the assigned task before taking it on
  • Make yourself available outside normal business hours
  • Minimize the use of email; encourage team members to schedule conversations with each other as they collaborate on a project
  • Instant messaging tools like Google Hangouts, Google Talk, Microsoft Lync (now Skype for Business) and Cisco Jabber allow you to check in with team members in a way that’s less formal
  • Make it easy for all employees to access the documents they need remotely. Using cloud-based file-sharing software, such as Google Drive or Dropbox, can help everyone easily share documents and stay organized

Providing constructive feedback through virtual coaching sessions is another important way to keep team members motivated. We asked the virtual leaders we surveyed to share their best practices for coaching virtual employees. Here’s what they recommended:

  • Use video conferencing so you can talk face to face
  • Name behaviours rather than labeling. Don’t tell someone her lack of commitment caused the project to fail; you’re not making it clear what she did wrong. Point to specific behaviours instead, like a failure to meet an agreed-upon deadline
  • Make the session consultative. Ask employees about their challenges and what you can do to address them together
  • Pay attention to the tone and inflection of your voice
  • Ask employees to repeat what you’ve said to confirm understanding
  • Don’t assume they’ll remember the follow-up actions; put them in writing via email

PROCESS

The way you share information and make decisions in a virtual team will be inherently different. There is a greater chance for misunderstandings due to time zone differences, difficulties with technology and other factors. Don’t assume new employees know how to use the programs that are common at your company or understand processes that may be unique to your company. Everyone should receive training on the programs you use to collaborate virtually, such as GoToMeeting, WebEx or file-sharing programs such as Google Drive.

Virtual leaders should maintain process documents in a shared file so that all employees understand the protocol for setting up meetings, using project management software and interacting with the team. These documents need to be regularly updated, and changes must be communicated to the team.

Other tips for virtual team process management include:

  • Set expectations; everyone should be aware of the expected time frame for responding to emails and voicemails
  • Reduce unnecessary emails whenever possible; quick chats or instant messages are more effective
  • Before sending an email to the entire team, ask yourself if everyone on the team needs to be copied to avoid excess emails
  • Make sure your team has the resources it needs to successfully collaborate. Thirty-nine per cent of the leaders we surveyed reported that they had challenges that stemmed from a lack of resources

Ineffective virtual meetings are one of the biggest pitfalls for leaders. Virtual meetings often stray off topic and run long. In fact, they are often held when not needed simply because they are on the calendar. Virtual leaders need to always consider if a meeting is required, and if so, set clear objectives for what needs to be accomplished.

Here are some other tips for hosting more effective virtual meetings:

  • Use collaborative meeting software like WebEx, GoToMeeting or Adobe Connect, which allows you to see others on your team. These programs also allow you to use a hand icon to manage the conversation
  • Telepresence technology takes this a step further, with more sophisticated programs to make you feel like you’re meeting in person. These programs include Cisco’s TelePresence series and Polycom high-definition conferencing
  • Keep in mind that employees who work from home aren’t always ready for a video call. Remember to ask first before calling them on video
  • Host meetings only when necessary; avoid status-update meetings
  • Assign agenda items to various people on your team to keep them engaged during the meeting
  • Maintain team involvement throughout the session; use polls or collect votes
  • Limit meeting times in order to stay on track
  • Appoint someone to keep the conversation on track when the conversation turns to tangents
  • Direct individual questions or unrelated discussions offline so you’re not wasting time during meetings
  • Share the agenda and any notes on your screen so that the whole team can see them
  • Consider recording meetings and reposting the recordings

FINAL TAKEAWAYS

Virtual workplaces have transformed the traditional business landscape, and it’s clear that they are here to stay. Indeed, what was once an option for many companies is now required simply to keep pace with the global competition. But virtual teams often fail. And when that happens, productivity declines and that ultimately hurts the bottom line.

The good news, as noted above, is that avoiding failure isn’t difficult. Organizations simply need to deploy the technology, tools and training required to ensure that virtual teams can deliver return on investment in terms of increased competitiveness and profitability.

Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar, former vice president of talent management at Gap, perhaps said it best when he pointed out, “The things that are good for virtual teams are the same as with traditional teams, but they become even more important in virtual teams.”

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