Virtual or dispersed teams are quickly becoming the new norm. Consider this stat from a 2013 Global Workplace Analytics Survey, between 2005 and 2013, the number of employees who worked virtually grew by 80 percent.
There are lots of reasons to work virtually—extended market opportunity; increased efficiency, productivity, innovation, and synergy; access to a wider pool of talent; better effort, performance gains, and job satisfaction; and more cost savings.
But with all these advantages, come disadvantages, too. Sometimes doing business where you cannot meet with people face-to-face is challenging. Participants in a 2012 Society for Human Resource Management survey cited time differences, distribution of work, differences in cultural norms, and technology as barriers to success. If you work on a virtual team, chances are you’ve encountered these obstacles—you’re used to getting up early or working late to do a meeting, dealing with bugs in video chats, or having messages lost in translation over email. The truth is, while more and more teams are going virtual, no one has figured out how to do it right yet.
Still, there are three key actions you can take to lead your virtual team to success:
Cultivate trust. Approximately half of human resources professionals in the 2012 survey said that building trust is an obstacle that prevents them from being successful. With dispersed teams, it’s critical to spend extra time building trust. Have exercises where people disclose about their families, friends, hopes, dreams, and fears so people get to know each other more personally. Also, ensure trust by making sure people have clear and defined roles so they know how to operate as a team. Another way to build trust is to share leadership responsibilities in a particular task or piece of the project so everyone has a sense of ownership and shared responsibility for success. To learn more about building trust, visit one of my earlier blog posts.
Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. When sharing a physical space, team members have spontaneous interactions all the time whether at the water cooler or during an office pop-in. You don’t have that when working virtually and that can make things very challenging. Studies have shown that the tone and gestures you use when communicating are more powerful than the words you actually speak—and this paraverbal communication can be almost nonexistent for virtual teams. Thus, leaders need to strive for three times as many touch points with dispersed team members. If possible, shoot for phone or video chat. Research has shown that face-to-face conversations are ten times more effective than phone, and phone conversations ten times more effective than email. The jury is still out on the effectiveness of video calls but I’d venture to say it’s better than voice calls. When communicating, virtual leaders must not only listen for the words that are or are not spoken, but also the tone, pauses, inflections, laughter, and perhaps the toughest of all…silence.
Also keep in mind that individuals—and cultures—all have unique communication styles. For example, some cultures, such as the Vietnamese, are more indirect while the French are more direct. Some cultures prefer a lot of communication, like the Chinese, whereas others, such as Americans, would rather cancel a meeting if there’s nothing on the agenda. When you were born can also impact how you communicate. Baby boomers are more autonomous and don’t need as much remote relationship building whereas millennials who’ve grown up in the age of social media and texting are used to high contact. It’s paramount for virtual leaders to be mindful of personalities, cultures, and preferences when managing communication.
Get buy-in. When working apart from your colleagues, it can be really difficult to feel like a team. That’s why virtual leaders need to work hard to get buy-in to the team and the cause. They can do this by constantly creating context. By this, I mean, talking about the big picture and how everyone’s actions are helping achieve the high-level goals. They also need to cultivate community. One way to do this is by creating a company culture, whether it is by having everyone wear a company t-shirt on Fridays, hanging company values in home offices, or sending chotskies with company colors or mascots emblazoned on them. These tangible items make a virtual community feel more real. Finally, many of the most successful virtual workforce leaders recognize and internalize a simple reality: Their leadership alone is not enough when it comes to large, networked organizations consisting of people who sit within the bounds of traditional organizational structures but who are also part of the new virtual workforce. These leaders co-activate their leadership. They co-opt others to make things happen—putting themselves aside at times, asserting their authority at other times, but recruiting others to lead at all times.
If you have remote employees, one of the most important steps you can do to lead an effective team is to drop the “us and them” mindset. Even if you have several employees sharing a physical space with you, if you have remote team members, then you’re all working remotely. You need to make a concerted effort to become one team that’s working to overcome the barriers together.