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29 Feb A four part guide to leading teams remotely

LEADING VIRTUAL TEAMS: A 4 PART GUIDE TO LEADING TEAMS REMOTELY

The notion of virtual teams, remote working, telecommuting and flexi-time is one that has grown in popularity in recent years; as companies expand, millennials enter the workforce and technology develops, the world is looking for a new way to work.

A virtual team, or a team made up of people working from different locations, can mean anything from being in separate houses, coffee shops or continents – and is often a mixture of all three.

Increasing globalisation means that companies are no longer restricted to the talent on their doorstep; instead, “Companies can use the best and lowest cost global talent and significantly reduce their real estate costs” (Keith Ferrazzi, HBR), since working in virtual teams may negate the need for office space completely.

But despite clear benefits with regards to flexibility and cutting costs, leading a virtual team brings its own kind of challenges.

THE DANGER OF ‘VIRTUAL DISTANCE’

Working remotely can generate a sense of distance beyond just that of location. Karen Sobel Lojeski, of Stony Brook University, and Richard Reilly of the Stevens Institute of Technology used 3 elements to quantify ‘virtual distance’: physical distance, operational distance and personal affinities.

Lojeski and Reilly found that teams with a high amount of ‘virtual distance’ can face some pretty big mountains to climb, with aspects like trust, innovation, and employee satisfaction being reduced by between 80% and 90% compared to those with low ‘virtual distance’, and performance in general being affected by 50%

HOW CAN WE LEAD VIRTUAL TEAMS EFFECTIVELY?

Working remotely needs a whole new attitude, and a whole new kind of leadership.

Here’s 4 things for leaders to consider when building a strong, effective, productive virtual team:

PICKING THE TEAM

The most important aspect of any team is the people in it – and as a leader, you need to pick yours correctly to keep the virtual machine running smoothly. Keith Ferrazzi states in this HBR article that “you won’t get anywhere without hiring (or developing) people suited to virtual teamwork, putting them into groups of the right size, and dividing the labour appropriately.”

So what makes someone suited to virtual teamwork? Skills such as the ability to communicate well, a high level of emotional intelligence, the will to work independently, and a resilience to bounce back from any challenges that working virtually provides are all important, as is an openness to this contemporary form of working.

In terms of size, Ferrazzi states that “our work with companies from large multinationals, to tiny start-ups has taught us the most effective virtual teams are small ones – fewer than 10 people”, and that the worst performing teams have 13 people of more. This size works because any more than that could result in less accountability to each individual because of sheer volume of contributors, and a vast increase in the amount of communication needed to work closely with each team member – for example, research shows that in a team of 5, it only takes 10 conversations to catch up with everyone, but in a team of 13, this number rises to 78 conversations. The more people in your virtual team, the less optimally they will perform.

LEADING THROUGH COMMUNICATION 

If there’s one thing to take away from this article as being key to leading a virtual team, it’s communication. Communicating well is a skill needed in all aspects of work, but becomes magnified in importance when working remotely.

One of the key elements is creating a culture of trust, and driving relationship-building throughout your team on a continuous basis. Getting to know virtual teammates on a personal level, whether it’s through video calls or anecdotes on a conference call, helps your team reduce the potential isolation that can come from working remotely.

Honesty and frankness is also crucial; Ferrazzi states in his HBR article that “our own recent study of 50 financial firms confirmed that leaders of dispersed groups, in particular, must push members to be frank with one another. One way to do this is by modelling ‘caring criticism’”. Encouraging team members to call each other out – politely, of course – on any action that could be improved is so important to maximise productivity.

Because all of your team’s communication is virtual, team leaders also need to generate a sense of purpose, and provide guidelines for interaction. Whether it’s a policy that all team members should respond to questions within 48 hours, or that each person should update you with their accomplishments daily, this provides the structure that working virtually can so often lack.

CHECKING IN

As with any kind of team, there are some points in a project that are more crucial than others, and as leader, it’s important to make sure these are highlighted – and if possible, for you to arrange a face to face meeting.

Kicking off a new project well with a virtual team is crucial for long term success. If you can do it face to face, or by video if not, taking the time to introduce everyone, set expectations for a culture of trust and honesty and clarifying the team’s goals will help set your team up to work together effectively.

If a new person joins the team, don’t just introduce them with an email and leave them to get on with it – set up a face to face meeting here if possible, with other people they’ll be working closely with, and provide them a mentor to contact with any issues or queries.

When you reach a big milestone, this should be celebrated with a virtual team just as it would be with a co-located one. Arrange something, face to face or otherwise, to mark a momentous achievement; this will bring team members together and spark a renewed sense of motivation.

UTILISE TECHNLOGY 

A virtual team – even the best ones – can’t succeed without the right technology to bring them together.

It goes without saying that conference calls are important, so book them in regularly and make them as formal as a normal face to face group meeting would be.

Encouraging your team to speak directly to each other via telephone call or video chat is also great for building stronger relationships.

Perhaps most important is finding a platform that allows your virtual team members to openly share ideas, have group discussions and collaborate effectively – as John Stepper of Deutsche Bank defined it, ‘working out loud’. A tool like Basecamp is great for this; with the ability to post messages to the whole group (or just the relevant people), share items and ask for feedback, and have everything documented online (and therefore searchable), you’re giving your team the tools they need to work together productively.

Being able to lead a team remotely is sure to become a key leadership skill for all in the future. By understanding each of the 4 components above, you can really make the most of the benefits that virtual teams can provide on an individual and company-wide level.

Does your company work using virtual teams?

Have you found remote leadership challenging?

Talk to TalentLink. We design and deliver bespoke leadership development training programmes for companies across the UK, and can help you tackle your virtual team challenges.

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