Leading a team of diverse employees with different needs is hard enough. Scatter those employees across different geographic areas, where face-to-face contact is infrequent, priorities are constantly shifting, and there is little time to address individual needs, and you can begin to understand why leading a virtual team is one of the most difficult jobs in business today.
In order to help businesses understand which behaviors are directly associated with highly-effective virtual team leadership, OnPoint Consulting conducted a global study of 48 virtual teams. To be effective, team leaders in a virtual environment must be especially sensitive to interpersonal communication and cultural factors to overcome the limitations of distance. Our study found that there are five key lessons that the best distance leaders follow:
OnPoint Consulting’s 5 Lessons for Leading From a Distance
Lesson #1: No Trust, No Team.
Effective virtual team leaders look for new ways to infuse team spirit and trust into their teams, which helps to boost cooperation. They understand that team members need to feel that they can depend on one another in order to collaborate effectively. If trust breaks down within a team, people are more likely to shirk responsibility, avoid asking for help, and engage in toxic behavior that breeds resentment. Successful virtual team leaders help build an environment that supports collaboration by finding ways for team members to interact and communicate informally. Holding a face-to-face kick-off meeting is a good way to get a virtual team off to a good start because it provides team members with an opportunity to establish a connection with each other right away.
Lesson #2: Create a “High Touch” Environment
Communications technology has made virtual teaming possible, but is not a perfect substitute for human interaction. It can be tempting for team members to become withdrawn, focusing solely on their work without bothering to interact with anyone. While people may be productive like this, it doesn’t help facilitate trust or relationships that make collaboration possible. Chat software and video conferencing platforms can help employees interact with one another regularly, helping to create a “high touch” environment that makes closer relationships possible.
Lesson #3: Watch Out for Performance Peaks
While virtual teams who have been working together for over three years tend to be more successful than teams working together for less time, many of them face a performance peak around the one-year mark. Like any other team, virtual teams are far less productive when their members become less engaged. When leaders see warning signs of a performance peak, it’s important to take action. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to identify these signs in a virtual environment. The most effective virtual leaders put processes in place to monitor performance virtually and take immediate action when they observe signs of a performance plateau.
Lesson #4: Empower Team Members.
People are often expected to work more independently in virtual teams, which makes finding ways to delegate work and providing team members the freedom to make decisions on their own particularly important for success. Of course, accountability is still critically important for virtual teams. In many cases, team members are dependent upon others to complete their work, so leaders must be sure to facilitate open communication to ensure that everyone is able to remain productive. Good virtual leaders set up a system for monitoring progress and follow up frequently, but avoid micromanaging.
Lesson #5: Soft Skills Are Essential
The presence of soft skills makes a difference in virtual team performance. OnPoint’s research found that virtual teams tend to perform better when their members have engaged in skill development programs and activities. Soft skills are doubly important for leaders, as they must work to maintain frequent communication between members, inspire people to achieve goals and get results, and manage conflict in ways that produce positive outcomes. Despite the strong link between training and virtual team performance, many organizations do not make the investment in these programs, which presents serious challenges for learning and development professionals who work hard to provide teams with the skills and education they need for success.
The Bottom Line
As organizations continue to expand the use of virtual teams, virtual team leadership will play an important role in driving overall organizational effectiveness. OnPoint's study findings have important implications for the selection and development of virtual team leaders. Organizations should select leaders who have the skills and personal characteristics to translate these five lessons for effectively leading from a distance into action.