In today’s global and technology-enabled environment, working in virtual teams has become the norm rather than the exception. Companies expect employees to collaborate and work in both formal and informal virtual teams and contribute in a productive way to business results. The issue is that working virtually presents a set of communication and leadership challenges that leaders have not had to deal with in the past.
To be successful leading in a virtual environment, leaders must use many traditional approaches to manage and motivate their teams, but they must modify those approaches to work in a virtual environment. Leading virtually is not about doing things completely differently; it is about changing your perspective to address some of the key challenges that virtual working creates. Some of the top challenges faced by leaders of virtual teams include:
- Ensuring that employees feel connected to the organization.
- Building trusting relationships.
- Ensuring high performance.
Three Key Actions
- Ensuring that employees feel connected to the organization
The first key action for virtual leaders is to make sure that team members are fully engaged. Virtual workers can very easily feel disconnected from their organization and colleagues, and that can lead to poor productivity and job dissatisfaction. Employees feel the most satisfied when they feel that their work matters, so leaders must be able to clearly show how the work that each individual and the team completes supports higher level organization purpose and goals. Leaders also need to make extra effort to keep the team up to date on organizational results and changing priorities. Virtual workers miss a lot of the “water cooler” talk, so leaders need to bridge that gap with proactive communication.
- Building trusting relationships
The second key action for leaders of virtual teams is building trust in a virtual way. Trust is the foundation of relationships. In virtual situations, it can be hard to establish trust when colleagues do not know each other well, or they don’t have the opportunity to spend time together in person. In traditional workplace relationships where colleagues are in the same place, trust develops as people get to know each other. In virtual relationships the personal discussions are often much less frequent and not as in-depth. As a result, trust in virtual relationships is often the result of task reliability. As a leader of a virtual team it is critical that you demonstrate reliability as much as possible, as that will help you build trust and credibility with your team members. Reliability is directly related to actions and consistency. It is about walking the talk and doing what you said you will do.
- Ensuring high performance
The final key action for virtual leaders is to ensure the highest performance for individuals and the team overall. Virtual team leaders need to make sure that team members have everything that they need to maximize their productivity and get their work done.
- Having established processes and protocols is a critical part of success in a virtual environment. Virtual team leaders need to make sure that team members:
- Understand the team processes and protocols.
- Know what technology tools are available and what (a) the purpose of each tool is and (b) the best practices for using the technology are.
- Virtual team leaders also need to make sure that they set very clear expectations about task performance. Although this is a core concept in traditional performance management, in a virtual environment it is even more important as employees are often working independently and there is less opportunity to observe progress on tasks to ensure that the task has been properly understood. Leaders need to make sure that when they assign a task the employee understands:
- What is expected.
- How their performance will be evaluated.
- How to access the tools and resources required to get the work done.
- Monitoring performance in a way that provides an accurate picture of an employee’s proficiency and maintains their motivation can be challenging for virtual leaders. How leaders monitor progress should be adapted based on the employee’s ability and motivation to perform the task. The higher the ability or motivation, the less frequently and formally the leader needs to check in and provide feedback. Where an employee has not got a lot of experience doing the task, or they are not committed to the task, leaders need to check in sooner and more frequently and actually review the progress on work.
- Finally, leaders need to make sure that virtual team members get the same amount of quality feedback as they would get if they worked in the same location as the leader. Leaders should make sure that they select the right communication medium for the feedback they deliver — and should not hesitate to pick up the phone every so often in this digital world.