Leading Virtual Teams – 7 Key Tips

We live in a world today where organisations are globally interspersed. The last 10-15 years have seen a significant rise in “right shoring” and the build out of global teams, as organisations leverage global talent & resources to deliver business efficiencies.

While there are clear benefits of having global virtual teams, an aspect that often tends to be overlooked is the leadership & management of these teams. Managers frequently struggle with the question “How do I lead a team that I don’t see on a day-to-day basis”.

Leading & managing virtual teams, i.e. teams that are spread across locations, time zones & cultures, can have significant challenges, which need to be carefully handled.

Here are a few tips that can make this challenge easier to manage & help you harness the power of virtual teams.

1) Maintain regular & open communication – It is often said that good leaders are good communicators. Communication is a key element of leadership, as it enables exchange of ideas and facilitates shared understanding, which is vital if teams need to be engaged & inspired. In a virtual team, communication assumes an even bigger role as team members do not have a regular opportunity to interact on a face-to-face basis.

As a leader of a virtual team, it is important to have regular & open communication with the team (both as a group, and on a 1:1 basis). Holding regular “virtual huddles/meetings”, having regular video conferences etc. are good examples of this. To make these more interactive & instil a sense of ownership, consider rotating the meeting chairperson across the teams so that the teams feel engaged & do not see this as a 1-way communication channel.

2) Build mutual trust & respect – Trust is a relationship between two people, and it flows both ways. If one person only seeks to be trusted, but never trusts the other person, then the trust relationship will fail. Teams that are characterised by mutual trust & respect reduce negative conflict & foster co-operation & commitment across members. Trusted relationships & environments make it easier to bring out diverse perspective & encourage out-of-the-box thinking.

In virtual teams, mutual trust & respect play an important role in building connectivity. They help establish a relationship of equals, where everyone feels able to contribute without a fear of being rejected. As a leader, ensure that you are paying equal & unbiased attention to all team members (whether virtual or local), and are not undermining any member/group (whether consciously or subconsciously). Listen to what people have to say, and deliver on your commitments. The easiest way to lose trust is to be seen as only paying lip service.

3) Collaborate, not control – In a virtual team setup, it is easy to view the virtual team as “service providers”, who are held to account by Service Level Agreements (SLAs). Whilst this might be required for purposes of monitoring organisational delivery targets, it is important to view the virtual team as part of the leader’s own extended team. As a leader, view the team’s problems & issues as your own, and actively facilitate & assist the team in solving them. “It’s not my problem, go figure it out yourself” is simply not an option. In team meetings & 1:1 conversations, encourage your team to bring out issues & concerns and actively assist them in finding solutions.

A point to note here, though. Collaboration does not absolve you (the leader) from responsibility/accountability for the tasks supported by your team. This still remains firmly with you, and it is important that you have appropriate monitoring & escalation mechanisms to maintain oversight of activities.

4) Promote self-leadership – The role of a leader is to bring the best out of their teams. A leader is someone who can unlock the potential in the team & provide opportunities for organisational growth as well as personal development.

The leader of a virtual team should actively promote and facilitate self-development & self-leadership within the team. This becomes more important in the case of a virtual team, because one of the roles of the leader should be to build capability within the team to self-regulate & manage itself, and to be able to make decisions that impacts its day-to-day activities.

5) Be aware of cultural sensitivities – One of the biggest challenges of managing a virtual team is to be culturally aware of the environment in which the virtual team operates. Differences in cultures across the teams often have a strong impact on how the team members perceive & react to different information and situations. As a leader, it is important to understand and appreciate cultural diversity & to consciously avoid cultural stereotyping. When setting goals/targets, ensure that you take into account cultural circumstances (for example, a local holiday on account of a major religious festival which may impact team deliverables) and act in a fair manner.

6) Cultivate a global mindset – One of the key reasons why virtual teams fail to live up to expectations is because of a lack of a global mindset & approach. In the pursuit of cost & organisational efficiencies, business processes have increasingly become fragmented & dispersed across multiple teams and locations (for example, in the case of a typical global bank, it is normal to have Traders & sales teams located in one city, Middle office to be located in a different place, Back office (Settlements) to be located in a third place, and for Finance teams supporting the business to be located in a fourth location). This often leads to a very siloed view of the activity, with global teams lacking a full end-to-end understanding of the process and how their contribution fits into the overall puzzle.

Ensure that you provide your team an overview of the end-to-end process and help them understand how their role fits within the grand scheme of things. Also ensure you regularly update them on developments/changes within the organisation and how this potentially impacts them. This will help them become more connected with the organisation & instil a sense of ownership for their deliverables as well as better appreciate the consequences of any failures.

7) Regularly travel & meet your team – As humans, we all have a need to feel included, to foster a communal spirit. Face-to-face meetings & dialogue play a vital role in nurturing & developing relationships, and help build trust & openness in a way that nothing else can. It is therefore important to ensure that regular face-to-face contact takes place amongst virtual teams to reinforce the feeling of being connected. As a leader, ensure you travel & meet up with your team on a regular basis. Spend adequate amount of time with your team and get to know them better. Where possible, plan some social activity with the team as an opportunity to interact with them in a less formal & more relaxed environment. Regularly encourage & support members of the team to travel to your location as well, this will act as a strong motivational tool for them, and also give them an opportunity to broaden their network within the organisation.

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