Leading a Virtual Team Means Doing Things Differently

The Virtual Path Is More Difficult

Walking on a sidewalk is vastly different than hiking a mountain trail. The trail is uneven, there can be rocks and tree roots, your footing requires extra concentration, and the overall level of effort is greater. It takes intentional focus to walk the trail. I look at leading virtual teams in the same way. Compared to leading co-located teams, managing virtual teams is more strenuous, the global footing is definitely not as sure—the path uncharted.

With remote jobs increasing 71% in 2020, many leaders continue to manage remote workers as if they were managing a co-located team. It’s simply not working. Leaders must change their approach to take advantage of the opportunities—and minimize the pitfalls—created by this new technology and work style.

The challenge? Fifty three percent of leaders we surveyed at a recent webinar said that they had NOT received any training on leading a virtual team. Extrapolating that out, and that number probably skyrockets to near 80% of leaders overall.

Setting teams up for success

The rewards are well worth it, but there are growing pains. When I tell the people that I coach that I’m going to teach them a new communication model, I tell them it will cause them some discomfort, and they will experience dissonance and possibly even resistance. I ask them to push forward and stay with the mental discomfort in order to experience higher gains. Companies with remote workers and virtual teams are at that same moment of choice today when it comes to remote work.

Companies should look to provide leaders and workers training on how to best communicate, collaborate, and lead in the virtual workplace. Teams need to understand how to communicate when there is no breakroom or hallway to have informal conversations, how they can collaborate on the fly and quickly share updates. They need guidance on recreating the connective info sharing and team building traditionally fueled by spontaneous in-office interactions in the new virtual world.

Focus on the human connection

The secret sauce comes down to how we all use this new platform to inject more humanity into our virtual communications. Here are a few key ways to do just that:

  1. Be intentional about all communication. Nothing happens by accident in the virtual world. You’ve got to make it happen. You can’t pop into a teammate’s office or look over their cube wall. You won’t see them in the break room getting coffee. You must create these moments with “planned spontaneity.” Both leaders and virtual teammates should set time aside on their calendar EVERY DAY to create spontaneous moments. This is what brings humanity into the process.
  2. Be the change. When you are a team leader, it is critical for you to model every aspect of virtual communication—and talk about what you are doing and why with your team. Team members need ways to share thoughts, and seek out the thoughts of others, through regular formal and informal connections. To shrink the distance, you need a virtual line of sight across the whole team. That comes from both regular planned and unplanned touchpoints from all on the team in all directions.
  3. Get to your know team members on a deeper level. Seek to understand everyone on the team through formal and informal interactions. Know their strengths and areas of competency. Connect with teammates regularly via IM, chat, email, video platform, and phone—and learn which channels are most preferred and effective for each team member. Know who you can send an IM to for some advice, know who you can pick up the phone and chat with, and know who will jump on a virtual platform call for an informal meeting. Make a habit of connecting 1:1 with someone on the team every day.

A daily dose of the secret sauce

The fixes above are not technology-focused, but rather call upon our using today’s virtual-work technologies to our advantage. Think each day about how you can shrink the virtual distance on your remote team and strengthen relationships. Then make it so, adding in that adding in an extra dollop of humanity into every virtual interaction you have across your team.

Picture of Vernon Roberts

Vernon Roberts

Vernon Roberts joined Mandel in 2007 and is a senior level Executive Coach, facilitator and works with Mandel clients on articulating the value and clarity in their communications at all levels. Outside of Mandel, Vernon founded evokevirtual.com, after 20 years in retail banking, commercial lending and learning and development, mostly at Bank of America. At evokevirtual.com he helps learning and development teams transition their delivery and instructional design from face-to-face learning to the virtual environment.
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