Leading Virtual Teams

59Leading and managing a virtual team presents its own challenges, as team members usually don’t meet face to face, but interact remotely with their manager or leader.

It is becoming more common for some team members to work remotely. It has been estimated that around 70% of managers have responsibility for a virtual team member, and this will only increase as technology advances.

This means that an understanding and appreciation of the issues affecting virtual teams, and the particular skills required to manage a high performing virtual team, is now a “must – have” management skill.

Why are virtual teams important?

There are several reasons why virtual teams exist .We usually think of homeworkers first and foremost but in today’s world there are many reasons for virtual teams.

The team may be spread nationally or internationally, with members covering a specific geographical area. Or they may be attached to different teams, and are seconded to a virtual team for a specific project. Perhaps they work in different time zones, or cover different shifts.

Use of portable devices has caused an explosion in the development of virtual teams. There are new economic pressures on companies to deliver globally and cost effectively. In many countries, legislation to allow staff to request flexible working has come into force.

The team leader has to work using technology to overcome the issues of time, distance, culture, and other pressures. Their objective is to integrate the team and optimise performance.

To develop and run a high performing virtual team requires new skills and attitudes that are not yet widely understood.

What is the team manager or leaders objective?

As always, as defined by John Adair, the team leader has three objectives;-

  • Achieve the task
  • Develop the team
  • Develop Individual team members

Often there is virtually no contact between the team members, and the responsibility for effective communication falls squarely on the manager’s shoulders. They need to work with each team member, by technological means such as phone, email, face time and messaging.

The leader will need to ensure that team members do not feel isolated or disconnected, and that they have a high level of trust and empathy with the organisation. They need to develop a relationship with each one and understand their needs and priorities.

The manager’s role

The manager will probably try to visit each team member personally from time to time, so that they develop a working relationship with them. This in itself can produce pressure for the manager in terms of time away from their family, exhausting travel schedules and a lot of time spent in airports and hotels.

This means that the leader or manager has to critically evaluate the best use of their time to benefit the team, ensuring that meetings are productive, communication is effective, and everyone is kept up to date.

A key issue that will demand the manager’s attention is encouraging best practice. There is usually little opportunity for best practice to pass between virtual team members. It will always have to be picked up and disseminated via the manager or team leader. Knowledge sharing must be positively encouraged.

Any absence or sickness will produce an extra demand on the team leader, as they may well find they have to plug the gap. It is useful to have a plan to spread the work across the team in this instance, perhaps by utilising the nearest team member to help share the load.

There are some factors that will affect performance in a virtual team .The managers communication style is crucial, as is the process they use. The team structure must be clearly defined, and expectations managed.

Offer a clear Vision to the team

In any team it is the managers’ role to offer a clear vision to the team, to make sure everyone understands the team objective, their individual objective, what they must personally achieve to make sure the team meets its target.

They need to know what is ahead in terms of objectives, timescales, new developments, expected changes, leadership changes, and direction of travel. The manager must clearly signpost the Vision.

Team Agreement

An effective tool is to draw up a team agreement, or rules of engagement, which clearly specifies objectives, defines outputs, allocates responsibility, specifies working standards, quality, response time, and defines priorities, core working hours, regular team communications that members are expected to participate in, reporting structure, and any other relevant point which should be explicitly set down.

It is important to establish the best time to schedule live group meetings such as video conferencing. If the group is global it will not be easy to find any time that is convenient for everyone, but the “least worst “time should be established.

This agreement is not intended to be restrictive, rather to manage expectations of management and staff, and ensure everyone knows what is expected of them, when and how. This should have the effect of avoiding misunderstandings, enabling effective team communications and ensuring people are comfortable with boundaries.

Team structure

This will depend on the function of the team. If everyone is doing the same work in the same time zone, covering different regions, that is one issue, but if the team is cross functional, perhaps seconded to a joint venture or project, this can bring additional problems of time zone, first language, culture, expressions, practices, and local and national holidays.

In this case it may be necessary to establish core working hours so that there is some overlap of work time.