Your team is the same but has had to suddenly get used to working remotely due to COVID. Many of you may never have thought that one day you will be leading your entire team virtually – not just for a few days but for months at a stretch with no clear end in sight.
So how have you flexed your leadership style to suit this now virtual team? Or should I ask, have you flexed your style?
Virtual teams have been around for a while and there has been a lot of research as to how effective virtual teams are vis-à-vis collocated teams. Researchers have found that there is no difference in terms of productivity, quality and successful outcomes between co-located teams and virtual teams provided that there are 4 factors in play. These are:
- Small teams
- Good management
- Community spirit
- Effective technology
Team size matters whether or not co-located – smaller teams work better than larger teams on various dimensions such as trust, productivity, and knowledge sharing.
Management style matters – if teams are to be dispersed or virtual then you need to select team members for their ability to build relationships over distance and for managing working well alone. Leaders of virtual teams need to have the ability to build trust, respect and empower others. So ‘good’ management is more important in virtual teams than co-located ones.
Social and community spirit matters – whether dispersed or co-located teams that have a sense of team identity, trust each other and get on well socially perform better than teams without any one of these. In part this is factor is related to management style.
Technology matters – where communication is facilitated through various forms of technology – collaborative platforms, webchats, SMS, phone, etc then the virtual team members must have excellent skills in using it and the technology needs to be effective and reliable. Face to face is easiest for communication as you are picking up nuanced non-verbal signals among other things.
What the research shows is that for virtual teams to work well there has to be a conscious and ongoing intentionality to make them work well.
It is easy for team members to feel isolated and anxious and so as a leader you need to actively address this challenge. The leadership skills required to succeed remain the same in a virtual scenario but they have to be executed differently in a virtual environment. You need to continue being authentic, connecting with others, promoting inclusiveness, networking, and build relationships and trust as always, but the actions associated with these skills must be deliberate and intentional. You as a leader at a distance need to work harder at relating to your team members’ needs and aspirations to have the same level of positive impact that you would have had in a collocated scenario.
This may require you to check in more frequently with the team. I am not talking about work reviews. I’m talking about the casual conversations that you would have had in meetings, in the corridors, at the coffee station or even the parking lot. These personal connections build trust and relationships – but these do not just happen. You need to deliberately put a system in place for you to be able to do it consistently. The challenges for you is to create a sense of connectedness in a distributed work environment. The good thing is, as you do more of it, it becomes easier over time.
Some key areas for you to focus on are:
How well do you use technological tools to communicate and also the frequency of your communication? Also, how well do you listen? Your team follows your lead so if you want the team to listen to each other, you need to listen deeply and ask questions to increase understanding, given the lack of visual information.
An understanding of virtual team dynamics is critical for leaders and team members to be effective. As a leader, you need to be listening hard to identify signs of low trust in virtual environments. Successful leaders use strategies like regularly scheduled celebrations, fun, and creative reconnecting activities as part of scheduled meetings.
The goal of any team is the work product, not the time spent at the desk working on a project. Leaders who are more adept at keeping teams focused on business goals generally demonstrate a higher level of success. It also means that clear metrics, roles and responsibilities, and feedback are critical to producing high-quality deliverables.
So there you have it – what’s needed for you to succeed with virtual teams. We didn’t plan for it but it has happened and now that some months have gone by, it would help for you to reflect on how you’ve been approaching this and how you might want to approach it better. If you want to discuss further, just schedule a complimentary consultation by clicking this link above.