The shape of organizations worldwide is changing. The virtual workforce is almost more common than not these days. In fact, according to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report, published in 2017, “…from 2012 to 2016, the number of employees working remotely rose by four percentage points, from 39 percent to 43 percent, and employees working remotely spent more time doing so.”
There are plenty of reasons for this rapid growth–extended market opportunity; increased efficiency, productivity, innovation, and synergy; access to a broader pool of talent; better effort, performance gains, and job satisfaction; and more cost savings.
But for all the positives, certain negatives come with not sharing a physical space with your team and colleagues. “When it comes to virtual teams, if you’re out of sight, you’re also out of mind. While more and more people are working remotely, our recent study suggests that unless we take extra measures to build trust and connection with colleagues, we pay dearly for doing so,” write Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, in an article for the Harvard Business Review.
The truth is, no one has truly figured out how to lead a dispersed team smoothly, but we’re getting closer. Leaders are discovering innovative ways to rally and connect remote teams no matter how far away they are from each other.
Here are three actions successful leaders are taking to manage the virtual workforce efficiently–no matter how far-flung.
1. Create context.
Context is the foundation from which we derive meaning from what other people say. In the past, members of a team would see each other every day, know what was going on in each other’s personal and professional lives, and be aware of each other’s thoughts on happenings large and small. In today’s virtual workforce environment–not so much. Often, team members are mostly strangers to one another and may feel disconnected from the overall team or company vision.
So leaders need to help individuals and teams in the virtual workforce see the reason why they need to care about the project and their part in it. They need to be sure to voice the overall vision and share the company, team, and individual goals. They need to be explicit about why the team is working together and how it aligns with business goals.
Leaders need to pinpoint how each team member will collaborate and what’s in it for each region, area, or individual. If the leader doesn’t know, they need to hold a conversation and ask their team members why this project is important to them. What benefit do they see to themselves and others? And, then they need to ensure needs and desires are being met.
2. Cultivate community.
People work harder when they feel they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Thus, an effective virtual team leader works to create a team community and identity. This can be done with physical objects, like T-shirts or pictures. And it doesn’t have to be expensive or fancy. I had a colleague in San Francisco who had a dressed up banana for the team mascot. People loved it!
Or it can be done with more creative concepts, such as developing a project slogan or name. For instance, if your project is dealing with the government or is particularly sensitive, you could call it “Project House of Cards.” Or people could be given nicknames based on their roles or strengths.
It’s also essential for leaders to create expectations around communication. What’s going to be your primary mode of talking with one another–chat, Slack, phone, or email? Will you always use video for conference calls? Do you have contact hours to accommodate team members who work in different time zones? Is the team expected to meet face-to-face once a quarter?
Leaders also should provide guidelines to support the team’s well-being. For example, don’t schedule meetings in the middle of the night for those who live halfway around the world. Or don’t ping a teammate with an urgent request on the weekend. This is very important for fostering a culture of respect, as well as one that supports a balance between work and life.
3. Celebrate successes.
Unfortunately, in a lot of organizations, you only hear from others when there’s bad news or criticism. But this type of culture is a death knell to morale and productivity. An effective way to lead virtual teams is to ensure all successes are celebrated. You can even devise a systematic approach to honor them with a weekly award or special meeting.
In addition to creating an environment where successes are shared, effective leaders also make clear how to advocate for these wins. They promote their team members to others within the organization and help their teams learn how to promote themselves.
The positives of leading virtual teams far outweigh the negatives–and by taking these three actions, you and your team will experience far fewer bumps along the road. And, if you need help with your team? Contact me.
A version of this post was first published on Inc.