in Communication

10 Key Lessons On Leading Virtual Teams Effectively

We live in times where more and more work is executed by teams that are geographically distributed. Leading a virtual team, fostering collaboration and binding them to common set of objectives is one of the key challenges for business leaders.

In most of the troubled projects I have seen, the real challenges were not technical/engineering ones but communication/collaboration ones. Having been a part of distributed team and having managed a few projects with virtual teams, here 10 most important lessons I have learned:

Leadership

  • Share Leadership Responsibilities: Success of distributed team depends largely on leadership model. When team is distributed, leadership responsibilities should also be distributed. Command and control leadership model generally fails.
  • Foster Peer Leadership: It is even more crucial when the team is distributed.
  • Clearly articulate team goals and vision: It helps in aligning the team. When team is driven by the purpose, they are better equipped to take right decisions. The team should also know how their work fits into the larger picture.

Trust and Empowerment

  • Lack of trust is one of the biggest killers in a virtual team environment. They way you manage the team tells a lot about how much you trust them. People will back off the moment they feel that they are not trusted.
  • Don’t get insecure: When a team is away, leaders tend to get insecure and start micro-managing. They just push decisions to their teams, rather than involving them in the decision making. This works against building a culture of trust and empowerment.
  • Be human – people in your virtual team are still human beings who possess a set of important skills, who carry a self-esteem and who are emotional. You can treat them as “resources” or treat them as “human beings” – that choice makes a lot of difference.

Effective Collaboration

  • Even in virtual teams, face to face communication is very crucial. The best way to start a project is to have entire team interact with each other on a one to one basis. Even in virtual setting, it is important that team members know each other well.
  • Establish formal and informal communication rituals to stay constantly connected with the team. Technologies like real time/video chat and phone calls really help in establishing a two way dialogue where people can freely express themselves.
  • Provide clarity to all team members on roles, responsibilities, protocols and basic expectations on communication, deliveries and quality.
  • Have a system that provides clear status of the tasks and results of each team member’s efforts. Central management systems helps everyone stay on the same page. These systems can also be used to automate a lot of communication and collaboration.

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Join in the conversation:

Have you been a part of a distributed team? Have you led a virtual team to deliver results to your customers? What best practices would you like to share?

19 Comments

    • @Avdi, @Sudev – Thanks for the appreciation. So glad you liked the ideas.

      Best,
      Tanmay

  1. Trust is vital in real and virtual environments, so glad you’ve mentioned that. And I agree establishing rituals and schedules to stay in touch is important, otherwise the team won’t continue to function.

    • @Billy Kirsch – Thanks for the comment here Billy. I am glad that ideas in my post resonated well with you.

      Best,
      Tanmay

  2. This is so true. Everything needs to be made more explicit when working virtually than when working f2f — who will do what by when can be confusing in person, but when decided online, without facial and physical responses, role requirements can really get messy. The leader must ensure everyone knows everyone else’s skills and experiences so they know who to contact with questions and concerns and he or she must ensure that each individual is confident in his deliverables.

    • @Illysa – Thanks for adding to the conversation. As you rightly said, it helps to be explicit when dealing with virtual teams and manage expectations well. There are techniques and documentation that can help in documenting explicit rules. However, people work best when they are intrinsically driven by the purpose of the project/initiative. That, according to me, is a real challenge for leaders.

      Best,
      Tanmay

  3. I appreciated the clear and helpful points in your article. Virtual teams have been a part of my world for many years. Some new points for me and the others are reminders to me – needed ones.

    • @Grant – Thanks for that note and I am happy to know that the post served as a reminder on some important points.

      Best,
      Tanmay

  4. Great post Tanmay! I think your point on trusting others is one of biggest challenges for many leaders when working with virtual teams.

    In working with Clients I have found that clearly communicating performance expectations is incredibly helpful for fostering trust among the team.

    I have included your post in my Rainmaker ‘Fab Five’ blog picks of the week (http://www.maximizepossibility.com/employee_retention/2011/03/the-rainmaker-fab-five-blog-picks-of-the-week-1.html) to share your suggestions for more effective virtual leadership with my team.

    Be well!

    • @Chris – Thanks for including the post in Fab Five – always a privilege to be featured with other great thinkers who share all the goodness.

      Glad you liked the post.

      Regards,
      Tanmay

  5. Thank you for the post. Aside from managing a website, I also manage projects with a virtual team. True, there are challenges that I meet but employing some of the points you mentioned above helps me achieve goals. There are also some lessons here that are new to me and I will surely put them to good use. I do not just lead a virtual team but a cross-functional one as well.
    I am sure these lessons work well with that kind of team too.

    By the way, here is another set of lessons that I have used as a guide when it comes to leading teams effectively.

    http://www.developleadership.net/Team-Building/leadership-in-cross-functional-teams.html

  6. There is something that is much more scarce, something rarer than ability. It is the ability to recognize ability. ~ Robert Half

  7. Great tips. If anyone is interested in learning more about how to foster high-performing virtual teams, encourage you to read the “Handbook of High-Performance Virtual Teams” published by Wiley, 2008. Jill Nemiro is the lead editor. I am senior author of the chapter on VETIQUETTE (Virtual Team Etiquette). The handbook surveys best practices in forming, managing, evaluating, and sustaining productive cross-cultural virtual teams.

    Mal Conway

  8. Technology has made virtual teams an everyday reality, and the challenge now is finding ways to reduce virtual distance between team members and ensure communication, goals, collaboration and innovation. Based on my research with over 150 virtual managers and teams as well as 20+ years of global consulting work, eight characteristics of high-performing virtual teams emerge. Several are noted in this article

    1. Members exhibit a global mindset – they look outward, not inward.
    2. Members share responsibility for achieving the mission.
    3. A culture of openness facilitates trust and authenticity.
    4. Members engage in meaningful communication with each other.
    5. An easy flow of information exists using various forms of technology.
    6. A conflict management mechanism.
    7. Work systems produce deliverables within defined constraints.
    8. Members have a positive “can do” attitude that spans time and distance.

    I found your list refreshing. Of particular interest are your comments about ‘being human’. With virtual teams becoming the norm, it is most important to maintain the human connection and ensure that we keep the focus on our similarities despite distance, time and space.

    @Yael Zofi, http://aim-strategies.com/blog/

    • @Yael Zofi – Reducing the virtual distance is certainly an important challenge that we face today when teams are rapidly getting more and more distributed. Thanks for sharing the findings of your research with the readers of this blog.

      In virtual teams, it is easy to treat the virtual team members as “resources” and not as human beings. I think managers and leaders have a long way to go in order to get this right.

      Regards,
      Tanmay

  9. Hi Tanmay,

    Quite an interesting article on how to manage virtual teams. Your content is quite resourceful with very good tips for managing virtual teams and is being definitely being supported by healthy research from your side on the issue.

    Please visit our Blogs on similar topics and share your views with us
    http://goo.gl/i4HJH

    Thanks and Regards,
    Ruhi Desai,
    Senior Business Development Manager @ Sapience Analytics Pvt Ltd

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