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Thoughts from the Field – Issue #23 - But Virtual Teams Are Different!

By Pam Bilbrey - March 2015


There is no denying that virtual teams are different. Virtual teams change how people communicate, collaborate, establish authority and rules, and manage their day-to-day work. They have all the challenges of traditional teams - in other words, they often display many of the five dysfunctions- with the added complexity of working across time and distance and a dependence on technology to interact.

Almost all organizations already have some kind of distributed workforce and all predictions point to a continuing escalation in the number of people working remotely. Virtual work allows for the flexibility and work-life balance that attracts and retains top talent. In fact, 73 percent of US employees say such work arrangements would cause them to choose one job over another and that they would work for less money to have more flexibility. Employers find the virtual work environment attractive because of the reduced fixed costs, access to a global workforce, and increased employee performance. The degree of increased productivity varies with different organizations of course, but it's not unusual for companies to report an increase ranging from 10 to 43 percent when the distractions of the traditional workplace are removed. Sounds like smart business. It can be, but leading a virtual team is different. Leaders must work harder to build a sense of community, cohesion and belonging among workers who are not physically together to get the level of engagement, productivity, and profitability desired.

Here are five tips on leading virtual teams:

1. Be Picky About Who You Hire

Remote work is not a good fit for everyone. Leaders must select individuals who are most likely to succeed in a virtual environment. Here are some important traits to look for in a candidate.

  • Self-motivated: possesses a strong sense of drive and the ability to work independently
  • Well-organized: is plan-oriented and organizes work in an efficient and easily accessible way
  • Disciplined: manages time wisely and avoids distractions to ensure work is completed on time
  • Assertive: knows when and how to speak up with concerns and suggestions

Employees who are well suited for virtual work are over 50 percent more engaged with their organizations than employees who do not demonstrate these traits.

2. Be Intentional About Making Connections

Virtual teams lack serendipity, the unexpected and unplanned interactions, that occur among co-located teams. It is often these experiences that help to build trust and collegiality. Leaders can mimic such interactions by allowing time on team calls for informal sharing of work achievements and personal news. Simply asking, "What's going on with you this week?" or "What did you do this weekend?" can open the door for the vulnerability based trust and transparency that connects the team. Knowing and being known is critical in building trust among team members.

Understanding the unique strengths and skills of each team member will build mutual respect and help maximize collective skills, talents and intellect.

Don't underestimate the importance of regular contact for your team. One of the most common fears of remote employees is reflected in the old adage, out of sight, out of mind. Even though successful remote employees are self-motivated, they do not want to be ignored.

3. Amplify Communications

Effective communication is particularly challenging in virtual organizations where electronic communication is impersonal by nature and can be easily misinterpreted. Virtual leaders must spend more time networking, keeping people informed, and soliciting feedback from team members. They are challenged to find ways to communicate that are inclusive and timely.

Liz Shulof, the leader of a virtual team I work with and VP of marketing communications at Bomgar, addresses the need for real-time communication by using instant messaging as "the office door," finding it feels more personal and more interactive than email. Her team also creates a sense of being in the office by sharing calendars displaying status - busy, away from office, in a meeting, or available. They find that using visual communications such as Skype or Google Hangouts can reinforce a sense of camaraderie and personal connection. Enabling the right mix of technology helps staff stay in the loop and feel part of the day-to-day work of the team.

Regularly scheduled conference calls are essential to keep everyone informed and help the leader understand if the expected results are on target and, if not, whether adjustments are needed. Consistent communication also has the advantage of letting staff know their leader is accessible and aware of the great work being done.

4. Ensure Expectations Are Crystal Clear

Virtual teams don't have the frequent informal interactions that often help clarify roles and responsibilities of team members. Given trust on virtual teams is built in large part through demonstrating reliability, it is critical that each team member has a clear understanding of the specific results they are expected to deliver within a defined timeframe so that expectations are aligned. It is also important to make time to come to a common understanding for:

  • Team rules of engagement
  • Meeting etiquette
  • Decision-making protocols
  • Process for resolving conflicts

The leader can remove any ambiguity that may exist by formalizing expectations in writing and by periodically reviewing the expectations.

5. Create Space for In-Person Collaboration

Most agree that the ability to innovate often suffers in a virtual environment. Iatric Systems, a 100 percent virtual healthcare IT company and another client of mine, has always understood the importance of in-person meetings. Since the company started, they have held annual all-staff meetings. Recently, they sponsored an Innovation Day to bring key team members together for a think-tank experience. The day resulted in development of a new product that was in beta testing within 30 days. Frank Fortner, CEO, says this success and the excitement it created among staff has led Iatric Systems to commit to connect workgroups throughout the year, bringing small teams of remote employees together for in-person sessions to problem solve and drive innovation.

Virtual teams are here to stay. Like any team, their success is critical to sustaining a healthy organization. So leaders must adapt their management practices to the realities of a distributed workforce. And, they must find innovative ways to create compelling work environments that fully leverage the skills, talent and energy of their teams.

And if you are ever in doubt about the amazing work that can be achieved through virtual teams, take a few moments to view Eric Whitacre's most recent virtual choir performance comprised of 8,409 videos, 5,905 singers from 101 countries perfectly in synch. Amazing!