Guest Blog: Leading Your Virtual Team

Jackie Black, director of Digital Business Communication Ltd

Many managers have been thrown unexpectedly into working virtually and consequently, do not feel they have the experience or know-how to lead their teams as well as they would like.

But I would like to pose the question: how is leading a virtual team different? And what new skills do you need to be an effective virtual manager?

In fact, there should be very little difference in how you lead your team in a virtual environment and the skillset remains practically the same. In the early days leading a virtual team often requires much more effort: your team need to feel confident that you are there to support them, listen to them and provide direction whilst allowing them perhaps, a greater degree of autonomy. Resilience at this moment in time is also extremely important for both you and your team.

You may also need to up your game in terms of how you use technology. There are myriad of software programmes, tools, apps, and platforms out there which can make working virtually easier and there are plenty of experts ready to offer you advice.

I have worked with many international virtual teams over the last 7 or 8 years, helping them to work together more productively and to communicate with each other more effectively. More recently, I have also become a digital champion for the Digital Knowledge Exchange and, as such, mentor small business owners who want to build their digital skills.

I would like to share the following tips on how to lead a successful virtual team. I hope they will be helpful to those of you who, six months down the line, feel they need a few pointers:

  1. Take a moment to reflect on how you communicate as a team. Do you have a robust set of protocols or best practices for team communication? These best practices will provide a firm foundation for collaboration. They will also allow individuals to voice expectations and raise doubts before miscommunication and confusion arise. Investing time and energy in getting the relationships and procedures right will lead to greater efficiency and productivity in the long run.

Considerations:

  • How does the team like to communicate internally – WhatsApp, Messenger etc.
  • Response times for emails and messages – what is reasonable in these challenging times?
  • How and where do you share information – Share Point, Trello, Google?
  • How should feedback be given – is an email acceptable?
  • What is your meeting style – formal or informal?
  • Individual team members often experience a sense of isolation and a lack of connection with others in the team. You, therefore, need to be adept at keeping your team engaged and feeling included.

Considerations:

  • Is everyone clear about their role in the team? Who do they report to? Who they can turn to in a crisis? What can you do to make this as transparent as possible?
  • What does work-flow look like for your team? Have all the relevant processes been adapted to the virtual workplace?
  • Does your onboarding/induction process for new team members allow for the fact that they will most likely not meet the rest of the team face-to-face for a long time? How will they forge new relationships? How easy is it for someone new to your set up to learn the processes? What support will you provide?
  • How do you encourage collaboration? Research ways for your team to work together easily through document sharing tools like SharePoint or in project-based tools such as Trello.
  • Is there a regular time slot during the day/ week for socialising as a team? Is it sufficient or can you do something to make it more meaningful? How do introverts in your team feel about ‘performing’ on camera in meetings? Are the extroverts able to cope with working alone for significant periods of time?
  • Are you truly ‘visible’ to your team – do you check in with individuals on a regular basis to see how they are coping emotionally and physically? How do you let them know there is still an ‘open door’ policy in this virtual workplace?
  • Trust is fundamental to the success of your virtual team. Research shows that teams who are thrown together at short notice, for a short period of time, or to work together virtually, form what is known as Swift Trust.* In this case individual team members are willing to put aside their usual distrust of each other if they believe they are reliable and will keep their promises. Achieving a goal or completing a project on time takes priority over everything else.

Whether you need to build Swift Trust or something more permanent, the starting point is surely for the team to get to know each other. At this stage, hopefully your team members do know each other to a certain extent. However, we should never underestimate the importance of building and strengthening existing relationships. So, invest time whenever you can in creating opportunities to do just this.

In addition to familiarity, trust is often based on things like competency, integrity, empathy, reliability, consistency, sharing, mutual trust and similarity.

Considerations:

  • How do you demonstrate to the team that they can rely on you? And are you consistent in your management style?
  • How do you know the team is confident in your competence as a leader? Do they have opportunities to give you feedback and how?
  • Do you involve your team in decision making? How do you empower them?
  • Are you open with your feelings? How willing are you to share information?
  • How do you show the team that you care about them?
  • In what way do you show your team that you trust them?
  • Resilience, as I have already mentioned is vital for everyone working in the ‘new normal’.

Resilient teams will learn how to improvise in this situation, but it will necessitate constant adjustments and no doubt mistakes will be made. The key is to learn from these mistakes and find ways to bounce back.

Having a strong support network motivates people to keep trying, so as a leader it is important that you do what you can to strengthen the relationships amongst the team. Show them that you are a part of the team and not an outsider, that you empathise with them and even if you cannot solve all their problems, by working collectively you will be much more effective.

Considerations:

  • Who in the team needs most support in terms of resilience? What can you do to help?
  • In what ways could you monitor levels of resilience among the team?  
  • Could a buddy system help build or maintain resilience? How could you implement this?
  • Resist the urge to micro-manage and DO NOT succumb to spying on your team. Statistics show that many people working from home are equally as productive as they were when they were in the office, if not more. Many have successfully adapted to their new work environment and, having the freedom to manage their work-life balance is a major factor in motivating them to keep going.

If you would like to build on your virtual skills, check out the courses on my website: https://www.digitalbusinesscommunication.com/courses/leading-virtual-teams/

*Swift trust is a form of trust occurring in temporary organizational structures, which can include quick starting groups or teams. It was first explored by Debra Meyerson and colleagues in 1996. In swift trust theory, a group or team assumes trust initially, and later verifies and adjusts trust beliefs accordingly.