Four Ways Leading Virtual Teams Is Different

It wasn’t that long ago that the “workplace of the future” was a Jetsons image:  commuters going to work in flying cars. At the turn of the century, I worked with team members a few thousand miles away — most of the time via video conferencing, but still using once-a-month face to face meetings after 3 hour flights (in a plane, not in my flying car!). But, technology has taken us a different direction…enabling us to work together without physically being together with video conferencing from our phones, co-work and collaboration tools on our computers, and real-time work tracking.

For the past decade, I’ve worked with team members whom I see face to face perhaps only once or twice per year. Sure, virtual teams have advantages. The commute time can be turned into work time. But the effects of computer-mediated communication are not always great, and it’s certainly not true that virtual teams are always effective and productive.  A 2012 study from SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) found that brainstorming and generating ideas was the most successful task for virtual teams to accomplish, and that actually going through the processes of implementation was a bit harder.  The difference may be that team leads and executives haven’t adapted their leadership style to the unique challenges of virtual teams.

What’s Different?

The Ivey Business Journal followed up with 35 successful virtual team leaders to discover what made those teams succeed. What they found was that successful virtual team leaders engage in some basic, traditional leadership habits: They intentionally build trust in relationships. They hold team members accountable. They motivate their teams to support virtual work and collaboration.

In other words, these leaders don’t require new skill-sets so much as needing to consistently apply proven leadership principles in adaptive ways.

Different, But the Same

The truth is, the basics are the same no matter how much distance separates team members and no matter what cool tech tools bring them together. People are people, and people skills always matter. In a recent issue of Forbes, Erin Meyer shares four keys to adapting leadership to virtual teams.

1. You must lead differently

Leaders of virtual teams help bridge distance by acting as facilitators who eliminate ambiguity and give clear instructions.  When we are in the same office, and can bump into each other in the hallway, we tend to just “know” certain contextual information that team mates in another location just don’t know.  Assuming everyone knows something creates problems. Avoid these problems by over-communicating: give your virtual team a clear and sometimes exhaustive definition of the mission and a detailed map to the goal.

2. You must arrive at decisions adaptively

How we make decisions can be deeply rooted in local culture. If your team has expanded globally, or even regionally, everyone will benefit from descriptions of the decision-making process. You  must also adapt decisions-making processes and try different approaches that take into account cultural factors. A clear, but flexible, decision-making process has the potential to get the best results.

3. You must build trust with reliability

Virtual teams, more than local teams, translate reliability into trust. That’s because there are no other “in the hall” opportunities to build trust in other ways. Members need to know everyone is using highly defined processes to get things done…again and again. Reinventing the wheel every time drains energy and causes frustrations. Invest on the front end to create reliable systems, and you set your teams up for long-term success. Reliability allows trust to grow quickly, enables team members to focus on producing their best work,  and achieves optimal results. No one will worry they might be wasting their time.

4. You must communicate holistically

Even when you communicate over distance, non-verbal communication remains critical. We tend to hold still on video conference calls, but moving your body while speaking not enhances your voice quality, it enhances understanding. Act as if everyone is present. Step back from the camera and let them see your movement.

The bottom line: you don’t need a new leadership playbook to succeed with virtual teams; you need to apply the same leadership skills…adapted to this different context. The fundamentals reamin the same: leadership, decision-making, trust, and communication.

[reminder preface=”Your turn:”]What becomes more difficult in your virtual team meetings? How can you adapt your best practices to this new context? What tools have you found helpful in developing trust, communication, and leadership in virtual teams? [/reminder]