You manage a team of people who are working from multiple locations and time zones. Initially, everything looked really good. You developed the project plan, created timelines, task lists and met with the team to kick the project off.
And it was a really strong start–at first.
But after awhile your team members lost energy, stopped hitting it out of the park and began to miss meetings. And now you’re concerned. You’re looking for solutions, for tips or ideas on how to get the project back on track and manage your dispersed teams successfully.
For someone who is managing a virtual team, this is a familiar story.
Leading a virtual group can present real challenges. Maintaining clear communication, engagement, and focus can be tough. And, for more and more managers this is a daily reality as the number of companies with remote workers continues to grow. “Despite occasional stories of a company ending its remote work program, the long-term trends all show steady growth in the number of people working remotely,” writes Sara Sutton Fell, founder, and CEO of FlexJobs.
According to a recent study published by Upwork.com; globalization, skill specialization, and agile team models will change the workforce in the next ten years. The second annual Future Workforce Report found that 63 percent of companies have remote workers but more than half – 57 percent – lack the policies to support them.
But, as I’ve said before, leaders are discovering innovative ways to rally and connect teams no matter how far away they are from each other. Whether or not actual policies exist, there are best practices for leading a team of remote workers successfully and building a sense of trust, belonging, and commitment to the team, the project, and the organization.
In my workshops about building and leading effective virtual teams, one of our first activities is designed to increase awareness of virtual team characteristics and complexities. We talk about what works well and what must be done to achieve positive results. Over the years I have learned some of the best practices for managing dispersed teams. Let’s a take a look at three of them.
As the leader, it’s your job to provide the context for the team. In addition to sharing the project specifications and requirements, you need to paint the big picture for them and bring the importance of their roles to the forefront. Help your employees understand, not only what their roles are, but why they matter–and why each of them benefits individually from being truly engaged in the team goal overall.
While this may sound like Leadership 101, a dispersed team needs help understanding the company’s vision, the purpose of the project, and behind-the-scenes information they miss by working at a distance from the home office. Teams need to know exactly how they are expected to collaborate. Remember, working remotely, while offering fantastic benefits to both employees and organizations, can provoke feelings of isolation and disconnection.
As part of creating context, set clear and measurable performance goals and make sure your team understands how those goals figure into the project and the organization’s plans as a whole.
It’s on you, as their leader, to help the members of the group connect the dots, get to know you and each other and feel like part of a team, working together toward a common purpose.
Communicate, Maybe Even Over-Communicate
Communication is one of the first things to go in a virtual team setting. The inability to read non-verbal clues presents hurdles to dispersed team members that don’t exist for in-person teams. It’s all too easy to misunderstand a text or email because virtual communication lacks the non-verbal clues we get from face-to-face interaction. It’s better when communication is through video chatting tools like Skype or Slack.
Since 55 percent of communication is non-verbal, 38 percent is para-verbal (how you sound), and 7 percent is verbal, removing 93 percent of the context of communication forces a disproportionate dependence onto the verbal spoken word. Also, physical distance can contribute to avoidance of conflict, and it’s easier to default to “dealing with it later” if an exchange was tense or unclear. If you don’t handle a conflict proactively, unresolved negativity can fester.
So set up the ground rules with regular check-ins using a video conferencing tool. And make a point of meeting face-to-face at least once during the project–that contact will increase your team’s productivity by as much as 50 percent. Remember this guideline: Make a point of intentionally connecting with the people on your team three times as often as you do with the people you see spontaneously in the office. This effort will pay off for you in increased engagement and strong connections with each of your team members.
I like to remind people of the ten times rule: phone calls are ten times more effective than email (or text), and face-to-face communication is ten times more effective than a phone call. So just remember, “ten times, ten times, ten times” on the communication front.
Cultivate Community and Respect
We all work better when we feel like we are part of something larger. In addition to creating context, cultivate a feeling of community for your team. Develop a strategy to pull each of the team members into the group and then cement that feeling of community by acknowledging the team’s efforts and celebrating its successes. Work to develop a feeling of trust between you and your team and between the team members themselves. Building trust in virtual teams involves two different types of trust: cognitive (in team members’ heads) and affective (in team members’ hearts.)
Take the time to nurture these new relationships and try to understand what motivates each of your employees to perform well. Ask them what they consider appropriate incentives, and what aspects of the project they find compelling.
Make a point of being accessible to the team, and allow one-on-one time for each of your employees. Be considerate of their obligations, work commitments, and especially the time zones they are working in. Set meetings and calls as thoughtfully as your own schedule allows, and include group meetings on a regular basis as a way of touching base and offering encouragement.
Ask your team for feedback. What works for them? What isn’t working? What can you improve or create differently? If you encourage feedback and listen thoughtfully, not only will you learn important information about your employees and the project, but you may also find new leaders within the group; people you can work with and those you may promote for future leadership roles.
Be respectful of the individual group members and the team as a whole. This feeling of respect and community will go a long way toward building trust, and engagement, from a team that takes pride in delivering top-notch performances.
A version of this post was first published on Inc.com