• Vernon Roberts

Leading a Virtual Team is Harder! 5 Tips to make it Easier

Updated: Mar 11, 2021

There is an interesting trend happening in the workplace. Leaders are pulling workers back from home offices and remote locations in favor of more easily managed, collocated teams. It most notably happened three years ago when Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer famously said, "To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices."

I've been in the Yahoo offices recently and it does feel creative with large open areas that encourage collaboration. I'll agree that communication and collaboration are critical. However, I will challenge that communication and collaboration can only happen sitting side-by-side. Is it harder when you aren't together? Yes. Can strong, effective communication and collaboration still be accomplished virtually? Absolutely!

So, what's the problem? Leaders that we asked said their managers complained that they weren't as emotionally connected to their teams and couldn't “manage by walking around”. Management by walking around or MBWA, refers to a style of management popular in the 1980s which involves managers “wandering around the office, at random, to informally check with employees, about the status of ongoing work”. It's also been said that workers feel isolated when they aren’t collocated and being in different time zones can play a big factor when attempting to collaborate. All of this is true, however, the challenge is that many companies have not provided their leaders with the training required to sharpen their management skills and bridge those skills to the challenges of the virtual environment. It's about applying the same management skills in a different way. Many companies fail to provide their managers with basic skills and behaviors required for managing a team that sits together. Even fewer take the next step and discuss the challenges of virtual and how you can mitigate those challenges to be highly successful.

The truth is that a team will only be as successful as the leader's ability to execute and demonstrate the behaviors required to be successful in the virtual world. The beauty of the virtual team is that you can get the best and brightest, no matter where they are located. You can tap into the brilliance of stay at home parents who still want to contribute. You don't have to rely on workers being with in a 50-mile radius of the office or force workers to relocate so that they can sit side by side at a regional hub. Technology has provided the flexibility that allows our virtual team experience to be better than ever.

The bottom line is that leaders can't manage virtual teams with the same skill set they use to manage a collocated team. We need to ask more of our leaders, not less.

Here are five tips to help leaders manage a virtual team:

  • Hire correctly. You have to hire the right employee. Can they work independently, take feedback, meet deadlines and relentlessly collaborate? Are they or can they be proficient in utilizing chat, collaboration spaces, virtual communication platforms and streaming from their webcam? If they can do these things, I don’t care where they are located. Don’t fall in the trap of taking someone that’s expressed interest and wants flexibility. Make sure you are getting the best candidate for the position just as you would if you were hiring for a collocated position. Interview smartly.

  • Do things on purpose. We all know that managing by walking around (MBWA) was popular in the 1980s. It's not the 80's anymore. VHS and cassette tapes are gone too! As a leader, your actions have to be intentional and well placed. Know your team and each individual's communication style and strengths. Demonstrate, in your communication and collaboration with the team, how you want them to be. Show how to be inclusive and how to draw out all ideas into the room from the quiet folks. It starts with you.

  • Schedule touch-points regularly. These need to happen as a team and as smaller sub-groups. This is where the spirit of team begins. Get to know each other - why they are on the team and what they care about. Do fun activities that allow community to be created amongst the team. They don't have to love each other but they should respect each other in coordination with common team goals.

  • Make expectations clear...both ways. The weight on this tip is DOUBLE. It is simply this: Let them know what you expect and clearly understand their expectations of you as a leader. You must do both and come to a joint understanding. In the virtual world you must be specific and literal. People need to know when it' due, why it's due and the consequence for not getting it done. This goes for both deadlines and collaboration. When one person drops the ball the team should feel it.

  • Schedule face-to-face meeting semi-annually or annually. This one may be hard in tight budgetary times but it's important. Put these meetings in your budget. If the budget is thin, be creative. Host virtual gatherings from regional hubs. Human interaction is important. Being physically present creates magic that just can't be duplicated in the virtual environment. Giving employees the flexibility to work around their lives while you get access to the best minds anywhere in the world outweighs the challenges of virtual teams. It can be done!

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