Virtual teams are fast becoming a regular feature in business as a response to the globalisation of business and optimisation of capability – wherever it may be. This requires a different approach to leadership than the more traditional methods where a team is located together in the one office or within close proximity. Leading a team where the main form of communication is electronic is a challenge for team and individual employee engagement, as well as ensuring the team works cohesively to achieve their objectives.
But distance in a team doesn’t need to be difficult, and as with any team it comes back to you as the leader to make it work. Whilst there are a number of actions you can take to support the effective working of your dispersed team, there are two main actions that tend to stand out and provide greater return on the investment you make personally and financially in your team. Firstly, how you build the team, and secondly, how you connect with those in the team. Let’s explore these points below.
1. Build a Tight Team
Make sure that your team commences its life face to face. This is a foundation step that forms the bedrock of your team’s success. When people know ‘who’ is at the other end of an email, instant message or videoconference, then it makes it easier for more authentic conversations to occur. This means that the teaming process must have a greater focus on connection between members at a values level, and ‘how’ the team will work together – especially if the team is multi-national. As explained in the article Creating Sustainable and Successful Teams, teaming that focuses on values and ways of working is sustainable teaming. The reality is that in a virtual team, these factors become far more critical. If we know more about the people in our team, and we have a blue print for how we work together, then we remove much of the guesswork attached to what we are doing and how we should be doing it.
For new members who join your team after the initial teaming session, ensure you organise a virtual meeting where the new team member can be introduced to the rest of the team. At the same time consider providing them a mentor in the team who is adept at optimising networks and long distance communication. This will help them make the transition into your virtual team much easier.
If bringing your team together really isn’t possible, there are options available that include a mix of structured activities that can still contribute to a values level connection within the team. An example I have seen used very well is creating a coordinated mix of individual exploration meetings followed by a team videoconference, and then a more frequent schedule of follow up where the conversation focuses on ways of working and not just the work to be done.
2. Reduce Psychological Distance
In The Era of the Relational Leader I spoke about a manager I once had who was able to build a strong personal connection with each of his globally dispersed team members. Whenever we spoke it was as if he was in the same room. He showed how simple, yet powerful, this step really is. It is about using the available technology to bridge the distance and create a relationship that feels almost normal. Picking up the phone to talk to your team members as if they are sitting right in front of you or using instant messaging as your ‘water cooler’ for general ‘hi’s’ and ‘how are doing today’ are as critical for the virtual leader as taking a walk with a team member to grab a coffee and catch up. This is made so much easier if you have made a solid effort to build the team, and therefore know more about ‘who’ is in the team. So use this knowledge effectively to leverage and grow your relationship. Enquire about their family or hobbies; understand where they live in relation to the office, or if their home is their office, what are their constraints? Your team may have a great deal of physical distance between them, but that doesn’t mean they need to have the same amount of psychological distance… it all comes back to how you perceive and work with the team.