The days when your team would be all located together have long gone. Even in the smallest organizations multi-site and multi-national teams are commonplace. Leading virtual teams is a challenge for most leaders. There is always a risk that the virtual team will become not a team at all but a group of individuals and that the leader is not a leader but someone who spends their time endlessly chasing up the team, checking that everything that needed to be done has been done.
Leading virtual teams effectively means taking leadership best practice and handling it in a way that takes into the account the fact that they team is dispersed over different countries.
What steps can you take to better lead virtual teams?
- Define the mission in a way that inspires the team to commit to something bigger than their own contribution. The most inspired people have a sense that they are contributing to something bigger than themselves. To do this, you need to explain why the work of the team is valuable. Even in the most commercial environments, there is a clear benefit that the work of the team will deliver. You need to explicitly state this regularly and often. Say it, write it, include it in documentation as often as you can. Every member of the virtual team needs to fully understand the mission of the team and commit to it.
- Define the interdependencies of each team member. There is a danger in virtual teams that each member loses sight of how their work is critical to the work of others. While in non-virtual teams you can do this in a casual way, in a virtual team you need to be explicit: a simple chart illustrating how each person’s work enables the work of others. Peer accountability is the most effective motivator and critical to the success of a virtual team.
- Set team and individual targets and share with the whole team. Everyone should know what everyone else is accountable for. Don’t just do this once then forget about it. Open sharing of progress against targets is essential. Some people get uneasy about this but in a virtual team you cannot be the sole chaser of work. By openly and explicitly sharing progress against targets and deliverables, the team itself takes on this role.
- Meet face-to-face at least once a year. Don’t just have a kick-off meeting. You need to meet up. It is much easier to work as a virtual team when you have actually met. These meetings should focus on points one to three as well as any project-specific issues that need to be tackled. I think it is a good idea to meet face-to-face as new members join.
- Agree communication standards and routines. I was once in a team where I spoke to the team leader once every three or four months. It was a disaster. Don’t rely on email to manage. Agree regular calls on a one-to-one and team basis. Provide the team with a monthly key update showing progress against targets and deliverables. Make sure that everyone in the team is comfortable with the level of contact. This is a good topic for discussion at the kick-off meeting. You won’t be able to please everyone but you should have spoken at least once with each member of your team every week. Be careful to take into account time differences. No one is going to be happy having a regular call with you at 10pm in the evening.
- Set language protocols. While English is the global business language, not everyone speaks it in quite the same way. Using metaphors or expressions that are unique to your location, such as cricket or baseball references, can be unintelligible to anyone else. While your average Brit understands what is meant by a sticky wicket, it is unlikely that those from elsewhere will. Agree with your team what type of language you will avoid. For non-native speakers prepositional phrases are hard to understand even though the words are simple. Use the Latin version instead. So instead of saying “We are going to call off the meeting” say “We are going to cancel the meeting.” Ask your team what they struggle to understand and build the protocol from that.
- Get culture out of the way. Don’t assume that as leader your cultural preferences are the ones the team will adopt. Different cultures have different approaches to risk, change, hierarchy, time and leadership. Don’t leave these to be discovered as you go along. Give time in the kick-off meeting to explore their attitudes to these areas and agree how you will adapt to them. Most cultural differences can be handled through discussion and flexibility. Don’t assume that your way is the best way. It is simply your way. Learn to appreciate the benefits of different approaches. You can formalize this into a team agreement that states how the team will work together. Get the team to write this and then all team members sign up to it.
Don’t assume that your way is the best way. It is simply your way. ~Andy Phillips Tweet this!
To better lead virtual teams you cannot leave anything to chance. The more explicit you are, the more effective the team will be.
What would you do to make leading virtual teams more effective?