Leading Virtual Teams: 7 Strategies for Team Success

Posted by Kristin Arnold on June 6, 2016

Imelda, the manager of a geographically dispersed team is pondering how to improve the team’s collaboration. She has some team members in the central office, others in regional offices and still others working from home. She was used to leading people in the same office, but how do you get such a diverse group of people on the same page?

First, let’s get something straight. If you can’t lead teams well in the face-to-face (F2F) environment, you won’t be able to lead people well virtually. Small issues that are normally resolved quickly or don’t even exist in a F2F environment get magnified between the miles. Some of the unique challenges in leading virtual teams are:

  • Inability to read non-verbal cues (94%)
  • No time during meetings to build relationships (90%)
  • Absence of collegiality among team members (85%)
  • Difficult to establish rapport & trust (81%)
  • Time zones (81%)
  • Decision making is more difficult (69%)
  • Challenging to express opinions (64%)
  • Language (64%)
  • Holidays, local laws & customs (59%)
  • Technology (43%)

None of these challenges alone is insurmountable; however, when you have multiple challenges, the complexity is compounded. The savvy leader recognizes these challenges and creates deliberate strategies to maintain the team cohesiveness and productivity:

  1. Set Expectations. Create a team charter so everyone knows what’s 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. Don’t forget to establish team ground rules, those explicit behavioral expectations on how the team will work together. Don’t forget to discuss the team’s communications plan including the appropriate medium for regular communication, urgent communications and expected response times.
  2. “Meet” Regularly. It’s not just about getting the work done, but creating relationships among the team members so the work can be done collaboratively.
    • F2F.  I strongly encourage virtual teams to meet F2F during the start up phase and then periodically throughout the year (ideally, 2-4 times a year).
    • Online.  Once you have established trust F2F, then online meetings work even better! Conference calls are fairly typical these days, but you lose the facial expressions and team synergy. So I highly recommend video conferencing through Skype, Zoom or Google Hangouts so that everyone can fully engage in the call. I also suggest having a 24/7 team chat room/instant messaging platform where people can “hang out” and ask each other questions.
    • Huddle Routinely. You don’t want to spend your entire day in meetings, so kick off the day (or week) with a 15 minute “team huddle” that allows all team members to quickly check in.
    • Be Visible & Accessible. Not only do your employees not want to be forgotten, you don’t want them to forget about you and the team’s mission! Stay on their radar and be accessible if they need help, support or resources. Let your team know a specific window that you will ALWAYS be available or commit to a defined response time to any email or voicemail. Periodically, call each of your team members to see how they are doing, what problems they are facing, and how you might be able to help. And, if possible, go visit them as well!
    • Establish “Team Time.” Teams that are located across multiple time zones can be “time challenged” and miss calls, especially during changes in time zones. To reduce confusion, pick ONE time zone (the core team time zone or GMT) as THE time zone for all meeting announcements. That doesn’t mean that you always meet at the convenience of the central office, but you just schedule the time using that designated time zone.
  1. Encourage Interaction at Meetings. Many virtual meetings are awkward with the leader doing most of the talking. It doesn’t have to be that way…if you plan it.
    • Set Ground Rules for Team Interaction. My virtual team favorites are:
      • All participate…no one dominates
      • Say your name first
      • Be concise and speak slowly
      • Don’t interrupt
      • Seek first to understand, then to be understood
      • Speak as though your team members are in the room
      • Don’t multi-task during meetings
      • Set & distribute agendas prior to meeting
    • Keep track (and force) interactions. I like to keep a handwritten spreadsheet with the team members’ names across the y-axis and positive and negative contributions along the x-axis. When people talk, then I make a simple check-mark in the appropriate box. In this way, I can see who has been talking (or not) and how constructive (or not) they have been. It then allows me to call on people by name to weigh in and to take a final poll before we make a decision.
    • Confirm Action Items. At the end of each team meeting, confirm understanding of the action items and agree on next steps, due date and accountability.
    • Cultural Differences. If you are dealing with different cultures, make an effort to understand the culture(s). Encourage team members to share cultural nuances with each other through quick team activities, personality profiles and team building events.
  2. Keep a Dashboard. The glue that holds any virtual team together is the metrics. How does the organization and the team define success? Document it in a visual dashboard that all can see on the shared drive.
  3. Create Informal Gatherings to keep the team connected. It’s important to create opportunities to gather around the virtual water cooler. Support a 24/7 chat room with breaks, lunch, game time etc. Spotlight individual team members and create an online directory. Create interesting project challenges & competitions. Create opportunities for mutual professional development. (Note: this is an area where most leaders fail to facilitate these interactions. In a virtual world, they don’t happen naturally; it takes a bit of prodding).
  4. Integrate New Members. Whenever you bring on a new team member, invest the time to virtually introduce each team member, review ground rules & team memory. If budget allows, take the new member on site visit(s) to meet the other team members.
  5. Celebrate Often. Use any old excuse to celebrate success, including achieving a key milestone, celebrating birthdays and special occasions. Just because there are miles between you, arrange to have pizzas delivered at the same time! Take a toast of champagne, beer or diet coke.

Truth be told, these seven strategies are just as important in an intact team environment, but are even more critical in a virtual team environment. It takes dedication to stay connected and most successful virtual team leaders create rituals or habits that support the team’s work. Are you intentionally using these strategies to ensure virtual team success?

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Kristin Arnold is a professional meeting facilitator and international speaker who is passionate about teamwork. The Extraordinary Team’s approach to building high performance teams combines consulting, coaching, training and process facilitation within the context of working real issues. You can read more of her work in one of her books Team Basics, Email Basics, Team Energizers, or Boring to Bravo.

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