How to Lead a Virtual Team

Posted by Joseph Sherren on February 7, 2017

When workshutterstock_277372325ing with clients to develop a team-based culture, the concern that always comes up is – My team is scattered and many work virtually, so how do I build a team under those circumstances?

First understand that unless you have the skills to lead a team face-to face, you will not be able to lead them virtually.  On-site, pragmatic training is required either way.  Remember, a virtual team is just a group that works collaboratively, but separated by geography, brought together by technology.

Nevertheless, there are unique challenges when working with a team virtually:

  • You are unable to read non-verbal cues
  • There is less opportunity to build relationships
  • It is more difficult to establish rapport and trust
  • People may work in different time zones
  • Ensuring that everyone gets to express their opinion
  • Overcoming technology challenges

These are not insurmountable. Smart leaders recognize these challenges and devise deliberate strategies such as the following to maintain team cohesiveness and productivity:

  1. Start with a Face-to-face Meeting.  That way everyone will initially get to know each other at a deeper level.  Repeat this once a year if possible.
  2. Meet Regularly. It is not just about getting the work done, but also about developing relationships so the work can be done collaboratively.  I recommend once per month, even if they are short.  This way people become familiar with the process and each other.
  3. Establish a Regular Day and Time for each meeting.  By doing this people will be able to schedule well in advance and minimize any missed meetings.
  4. Set Expectations. Create a team charter so everyone knows what is most important. Identify key tasks, critical milestones, roles, and responsibilities. Agree on a common project management system such as Basecamp to track individual contributions to the team’s work.
  5. Use Technology that allows people to see each other.  Possible ones are: Skype, Zoom, GoToWebinar or Google Hangout.
  6. Have Everyone Contribute.  Create a segment where each person shares a good news story or something they are grateful for.
  7. Rotate the Role of Facilitator.  This gets everyone engaged knowing they will need to lead a discussion at one of the meetings.
  8. Encourage Interaction. Virtual meetings are awkward and often the leader does most of the talking. It does not have to be that way.  Set ground rules such as:
    Set and distribute agendas before the meeting.
    Everyone participates; no one dominates.
    Say your name first when you are about to speak.
    Be concise and speak slowly.
    Do not interrupt others.
    Speak as though your team members are in the room.
    Do not multitask during meetings.
  9. Confirm Action Items. At the end of each meeting, ensure understanding of the action items and agree on next steps, due date, and accountability.
  10. Manage the Metrics. Metrics matter. Ensure everyone understands how the team defines success. Document it in a visual dashboard that everyone can see.
  11. Create Informal Gatherings. It is important to generate opportunities to gather around the virtual water cooler. Create fun competitions as well as opportunities for professional development.
  12. Integrate New Members. Whenever you bring on a new team member, invest the time to virtually introduce each team member and to review ground rules and team memory.
  13. Celebrate Often. Find reasons to celebrate successes, including achieving a key milestone.  Observe birthdays and other special occasions. Arrange to have pizzas delivered to your various sites at the same time.

Many of these strategies are important in an intact team environment as well.  But, they are even more critical in a virtual one. It takes dedication to stay connected, and most successful virtual team leaders create rituals or patterns that support the team’s work.

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