Consider this scenario: Imelda, the manager of a geographically dispersed team, is pondering how to improve the team’s ability to work together. Some of her team members operate out of the central office, others work in regional offices, and still others telecommute. She previously led people who were all located in the same office and wonders how to get such a diverse group of people on the same page.
First, we should acknowledge that if you cannot lead teams well in a face-to-face (F2F) environment, you will not be able to lead people well virtually. Small issues that are normally resolved quickly or that do not even exist in a F2F environment magnify across the miles. According to a survey1 of nearly 30,000 employees from multinational companies, these are some of the unique challenges of leading virtual teams:
- Inability to read nonverbal cues (94 percent)
- No time during meetings to build relationships (90 percent)
- Absence of collegiality among team members (85 percent)
- Difficult to establish rapport and trust (81 percent)
- Time zones (81 percent)
- Decision making more difficult (69 percent)
- Challenging to express opinions (64 percent)
- Language (64 percent)
- Holidays, local laws and customs (59 percent)
- Technology (43 percent)
None of these challenges alone is insurmountable; however, when you face multiple challenges, the complexity is compounded. A savvy leader recognizes these challenges and devises deliberate strategies such as the following to maintain team cohesiveness and productivity:
1. 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. Do not forget to establish team ground rules—explicit behavioral expectations about how the team will work together. Remember also to discuss the team’s communication plan, including the most appropriate medium for regular communication and urgent communication and expected response times.
2. Meet Regularly
It is not just about getting the work done, but also about creating relationships among the team members so the work can be done collaboratively.
I strongly encourage virtual teams to meet F2F during the start-up phase and then periodically throughout the year (ideally, two to four times a year).
Once you have established trust F2F, online meetings work even better! Conference calls are typical these days, but you lose the facial expressions and team synergy. So I highly recommend videoconferencing 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.
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