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Leading From a Distance: Five Best Practices for Virtual Team Leaders

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Posted by Darleen DeRosa December 1, 2010

virtual leadership

Leading a team of diverse employees with constantly changing needs who each do their best work under different conditions is hard enough. Scatter those employees across different geographic areas, where face-to-face contact is infrequent, priorities are constantly shifting, and there’s little time to address their individual needs, and you can begin to understand why leading a virtual team is one of the most difficult jobs in business today. It takes a special breed of leader to get the job done right.

Not just anyone can lead virtually. It takes someone with the right mix of technical, interpersonal, and communication skills to lead a virtual team that can be successful.

In order to help businesses understand which behaviors are directly connected to highly effective virtual team leadership, my firm conducted a global study of 48 virtual teams. We did not seek to compare virtual team leaders to co-located team leaders, but instead, we wanted to understand what differentiates the most effective virtual team leaders from the least effective. As part of the study 150 virtual team leaders identified the top challenges they face when leading from a distance. 

The challenges identified include: infrequent face-to-face contact, lack of resources, difficulties in building a collaborative atmosphere virtually, lack of time to focus on leading the team, shifting team and organizational priorities, and difficulties in managing poor performers. The study also asked virtual team members, leaders, and stakeholders what they believed were the most important competencies for a virtual team leader. They overwhelmingly selected communication as the most important skill required for success.

It’s important for virtual team leaders to be great at building relationships, building trust, holding themselves personally accountable, and being results-driven. And being a great communicator is central to all of these factors. In general, we found that the most effective virtual team leaders are able to balance execution-oriented practices with the interpersonal, communication, and cultural factors critical to the success of virtual teams. 

Read on to learn the five best practices today’s virtual team leaders need to master:

1. Learn to effectively manage change.

Managing change and leading teams through transitions is particularly difficult when team members are geographically dispersed. To be an effective virtual team leader, you must develop a process for helping your teams adjust to change.

You must overcome the lack of face-to-face contact and a difference in time zones to find the methods that help your team consistently handle and implement changes. One important step in this process is to involve your team members in decisions that affect them. Doing so increases the quality of the team’s decision-making and helps maintain high levels of enthusiasm and commitment for the duration of a given change.

2. Foster an atmosphere of collaboration.

Effective virtual team leaders use certain strategies to make up for the lack of human contact. They constantly look for new ways to infuse team spirit and trust into their teams which helps to boost productivity and cooperation. However, less effective leaders of virtual teams find it difficult to build relationships and develop collaboration among team members.

Effective leaders of virtual teams help build an environment that supports collaboration by finding ways for team members to interact and communicate informally. For example, you might choose to use ‘same-time’ technologies such as Instant Messaging to help increase more spontaneous communication between your team’s members. Another important component of promoting collaboration is productively managing the conflicts that emerge. Because conflict can often initially go undetected in virtual environments, as a virtual team leader you must proactively look for signs of it and take steps to resolve it in a timely manner.

3. Communicate team goals and direction.

Successful virtual team leaders clearly articulate team goals and direction to ensure that everyone has a shared vision. They also periodically revisit these factors to both reinforce their importance and make adjustments as necessary. 

Clearly communicated, shared team goals are especially crucial for virtual teams because they give members a sense of purpose and meaning that sustains them when they are working alone or without regular direct contact with the team leader or other team members. Clear goals also help to unify the actions of a geographically dispersed team and keep members focused on execution. 

4. Develop strong interpersonal communication skills.

It’s no secret that team members who work virtually sometimes feel isolated and find it more difficult to tap into the office grapevine. This feeling of isolation can negatively impact morale and productivity. Therefore, the most effective leaders establish informal and formal communication methods to ensure that people have the information they need to do their jobs and to feel “plugged in.”

When we interviewed team members and stakeholders, they consistently mentioned responsiveness and follow-up as critical elements. Our study also found that top performing virtual team leaders had higher ratings on several items related to communication effectiveness. For example, they scored significantly higher on responding effectively, providing timely feedback to team members, and sharing information in a timely manner. 

Despite the lack of regular face-to-face time, to be an effective virtual team leader you must create a two-way dialogue so members feel comfortable giving constructive feedback. Doing this over the phone, a primary communication option for virtual teams, is particularly challenging because members have no visual cues to guide the reactions of others. That’s why you must learn to choose your words wisely and to use a more neutral tone of voice when asking for and responding to feedback.

5. Empower your team members.

Because people are often expected to work more independently in virtual teams, finding ways to delegate work, to give team members freedom to make decisions and to monitor work become particularly important for success.

While delegating work and checking on progress are important facets of empowerment, they’re more difficult in a virtual setting. The best leaders set up processes for monitoring progress and follow up frequently, but avoid micromanaging.

Monitoring makes it possible to identify potential problems early on, prevents disruptions in team activities and service to customers, and ensures that your team members are held accountable for the quality of their work. How successful your monitoring will be is determined by how effective you are at getting accurate information from team members who may be reluctant to provide it. For example, team members may be hesitant to inform you about problems, mistakes, and delays. And team members who aren’t responsible for a problem may be reluctant to report it if they are concerned about becoming the target of an angry outburst—otherwise known as kill-the-messenger syndrome. Therefore, it’s essential that the reaction to problems be constructive and non-punitive. Questions should be open-ended and non-evaluative to encourage people to respond and provide a more complete picture of the situation. They should also communicate the leader’s concerns and expectations to team members, in addition to seeking to obtain information from them.  

The challenges virtual team leaders face are often exacerbated by their virtual setting. However, the most effective leaders are able to implement strategies that help address these performance barriers. While these skills may seem fundamental, many of the virtual team leaders in our study were not able to execute them effectively. Understanding that leading from a distance can be more challenging than leading co-located teams is the first step in addressing the problems that virtual team leaders face. In that way, organizations will be more inclined to provide necessary skill training for virtual team leaders and to then periodically assess their performance over time.

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Topics: Work Smarter Virtually, virtual leadership training, virtual leadership, virtual team leaders

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