Leading Virtual Teams

English: Diagram of the focus of virtual team ...
Diagram of the focus of virtual team research (Powell, Piccoli and Ives, 2004, p.8) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Leading a virtual team is a challenge faced by many, whether an organisation has one person working from home, to having a team spread around the world on different time zones. Citing research that estimates an 800% increase in virtual working over the past five years, the authors examine the critical leadership skills needed in a virtual work environment.

As well as being of clear relevance to those leading a virtual team and the learning community who are supporting leaders to develop the necessary skills to successfully navigate these complex environments, this article is also likely to make interesting reading for those working within virtual teams.

The authors’ key message is that although key leadership skills transcend working arrangements (for example, authenticity (see previous post), connecting with others, building relationships and trust), leaders at a distance need to work harder to have the same positive impact than if the team was located in the same physical office. For example, unlike in a shared work environment where there is the opportunity to catch up informally around desks or the coffee machine, in a virtual team interactions are more conscious and forward-planned.

And of course it is not just leader to team member communication that is important, but also team member to team member contact for knowledge-sharing and problem-solving. Key points to consider:

  • Face-to-face meetings on an annual or bi-annual basis can be invaluable to foster trust and team engagement, particularly with new teams;
  • Embracing social media enables team members to connect on a much more regular basis; and
  • Selecting the right social media platforms for the right purposes is essential – do people value hearing team members’ voices regularly rather than reliance on instant messaging?

Interestingly the authors also briefly consider virtual working from an employee perspective, signalling the challenges they also face with virtual working arrangements. At first it may seem appealing to only have to walk from your lounge to your study and you’re ‘in the office’ rather than contending with rush hour trains. But the author cites a study that found virtual workers can feel isolated without regular face-to-face contact. In addition, working with team members across time zones presents its own challenges in terms of collaboration and phone calls outside of the traditional 9-5 working hours.

Ultimately, a productive team is focused on achieving business goals rather than being focused on how long a team member is sitting at the desk. In summary, leaders in a virtual team need to:

  • Set clear roles and responsibilities, keeping everyone ‘on the same page’;
  • Ensure everyone understands the business goals and how performance is measured;
  • Provide clear guidelines and good quality feedback to the team;
  • Work harder to build trust, collaboration and team engagement; and
  • Formally create time for each team member to be heard in the absence of informal opportunities to connect.

Overall, in a virtual environment, leaders need more of everything, including knowledge of technology, stronger communication skills, understanding of team dynamics, and generally need to exert more effort into forming a cohesive, collaborative and effective team.

Source: Dennis, D. (2013) Leading Virtual Teams – A 21st Century Challenge. Training & Development. 67(2), pp.46-51.

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