Leading virtual teams and remote workers

Video call with team

In 2018, there were 20% more virtual workers than 10 years previously. This increase will pale in comparison to the drastic shift towards virtual work which the first few months of 2020 have seen. With more and more countries instituting limitations on social contact in the face of coronavirus, huge swathes of the population suddenly find themselves working from home full-time. Alarmingly, our research found that only 16% of employees have ever had any virtual team specific business training to help them perform effectively.

We at Lane4 are also facing new challenges. Social distancing means many of our consultants, who were previously delivering workshops onsite for clients, are now delivering leadership training via virtual classrooms and webinars as their spouse sits in the next room, or their children play downstairs. As a leader of a now-virtual team, failing to acknowledge the magnitude of change in circumstance is a big risk. Ensuring you are aware of how you can help your team members be at their best despite challenging circumstances will set your team up for success, whatever challenges come their way.

We ran a webinar to help leaders navigate their new or now-virtual teams, hosted by our Consultant Director Paul Jewitt-Harris and our Key Account Director Emma Rowe, both of whom have a breadth of experience operating within virtual teams. They started off by outlining the potential challenges of leading virtual teams, and then provided a myriad of top tips for listeners to action today.

The structure is the following:

–          Three challenges for virtual teams: leadership, connection and processes

–          Four top tips for operating in a virtual world

–          Four top tips for success as a virtual team

–          Four top tips for leading a virtual team

Top 3 challenges for virtual teams

1. Leadership

Leadership is a key component of any high performing team in business. In a virtual team, however, our research suggests that 50% of leaders significantly underestimated the shared leadership within their highly virtual teams. Adopting shared leadership requires a mindset shift – a switch from being a leader, to a facilitator of leadership. Rather than overseeing all communication and actions, virtual team leaders should empower their team to achieve their goals. This may mean enabling them the opportunity to develop new skills, or demonstrating trust by allowing teams to lead on certain projects.

In a virtual world, leaders must also be ready to acknowledge their development areas. For example, interacting virtually can lead to people shying away from difficult conversations, thus impacting the development of honesty within a team. As a remote team leader, confronting your development areas and ensuring they’re not being exacerbated by the virtual environment is invaluable to maintaining harmony within your team. Failing to do so can lead to long term trust issues, poor accountability and fall-downs on processes within a team.

When leading virtual teams in business, ask yourself these questions:

– Where might I be a bottle neck to projects progressing for the team?

– How can I create autonomy between groups to have shared leadership between them?

– Recognising that some of the the things I’m not so good at as a leader have the potential to be exacerbated in a virtual environment, what can I put in place now to prevent this happening?

2. Connection

Creating connection in a virtual team is a commonly faced challenge. When you’re working in an office, it is much easier to pick up on non-verbal cues to gauge your colleagues’ intentions, behaviours and feelings. When you’re communicating virtually and working remotely, this is more of a challenge, as occasional video meetings don’t provide the breadth of information daily face-to-face contact does.

There is often a misconception that in virtual teams there is less need for a relationship between members. That belief should be turned on its head: in a remote team, the investment made to foster solid connection can be a real enabler for trust. In all teams, virtual or face to face, trust is paramount to success as it encourages collaboration, communication and higher quality outcomes.

To reflect on how you’re maintaining your teams’ connection virtually, ask yourself these questions:

– What touch points do you have as a team that mean you are not merely a collection of meetings?

– What behaviours can you adopt to ensure that your virtual team has an environment where trust grows rather than withers?

– How can you ensure that within your business and teams, information is shared rather than hoarded?

3. Processes

The constant ease of communication when a team is working together in the office isn’t replicable virtually. Instead, communication often becomes less frequent and more transactional. As a consequence, sharing information around processes often gets overlooked, especially when time on Skype calls is finite and uncertainty means leaders diaries are bursting at the seams.

In the absence of clear leadership instructions surrounding processes, people have a tendency to make them up themselves to be able to fulfil their daily tasks. As a result, dual operations end up running alongside one another, thus breeding inefficiency and undermining the performance of the team.

When managing virtual teams, clear communication regarding basic processes and operations avoids this pitfall, and allows virtual teams to be high performing. Many teams use multiple communication streams, from WhatsApp to Skype to Microsoft Teams. Creating clear aims for each channel allows people to know where to go to get the right information, connection or feedback without negatively impacting team performance.

To reflect on how your processes are being maintained remotely, ask yourself these questions:

– What channels does your team use for what purpose, and are your team members clear on these purposes?

– Which channel will you use to manage your team’s processes now you are working remotely?

Top tips for operating in a virtual world

1. Become confident with the technology

Set up the relevant technology with plenty of time before the meeting starts and always have a backup plan in case something goes wrong. Another quick tip to get remote meetings off to a seamless start is to set recurring virtual meetings so your team gets into a rhythm.

2. Encourage your team to turn on their webcams

Your remote team deserve your full attention, and the accountability of video means people won’t worry if you are listening to them or hanging up your washing!

3. Focus on the virtual

If you are having a meeting for which some people are in a room and others are virtual, shift the focus towards those who are dialling in. This means you won’t risk forgetting the people on the screen.

4. Start on time

Think about when that time is! Global meetings shouldn’t always be held at a good time for London: check what would be best for your client or colleague who is working elsewhere.

Top tips for a successful virtual team

1. Teams are more than just a series of meetings

A common mistake when managing virtual teams is allowing the most work and collaboration to happen during meetings. A series of meetings, however, can’t make up a team: trust, collaboration and support are all core to the making of a good team, and the development of those qualities should be ongoing.

2. When having team meetings, don’t only focus on the what

Remember to ask about the how. A simple way to action this is to consider the three P’s at the start of a meeting:

–          Practical: what are the practicalities we need to think about in this team?

–          Professional: what are we trying to achieve here and how might we do that?

–          Psychological: what are your hopes, fears, motives and reasons for you being here?

3. Set up team traditions

A ‘Virtual Brew’ at 11 o’clock, for example! Create an opportunity for team members to connect, catch up and enjoy each other’s company without the focus having to be on work. Providing a framework for social connection will help team members be more focused in meetings later on in the day.

4. Look people in the eye

The more similar virtual meeting can be to face-to-face ones, the better. Making eye contact (even if it’s through a webcam) helps you pick up on your team’s virtual cues, such as engagement, anxiety, and excitement.

Top tips for leading virtual teams

1. Define your why

Both for new virtual teams and existing teams gone virtual alike, investing time in defining the team’s purpose is paramount to galvanising people together when their contexts are particularly challenging. This should then be linked to the organisations purpose and goals, which will help maintain motivation for teams through a clear line of sight.

2. Deliberately understand

When getting to know your team members, the default often is to ask about their family, hobbies and interests. Although this provides a sense of personal connection, as a team leader the most important thing to know is what each of your team members needs to be at their best. It may feel challenging to ask, but it will allow you to be really clear on what you need to do each day to get the most out of your remote colleagues.

3. Every contact leaves a trace

Make sure to monitor virtual cues as you would in the office to get a sense of how you are impacting your colleagues. If you have a difficult conversation or sense a team member may feel you had a negative interaction, think about how you can rectify that in a world where there are fewer opportunities to repair the contact.

4. Role modelling in a virtual world

There are 4 components to leadership communication: sending out messages, having meetings, informal interaction and role modelling. We have provided advice on how the first 3 can be transferred to a virtual environment, but role modelling is more of a challenge. As a leader in a virtual team, consider what behaviours people are seeing in you which they can take on.

Read our follow-up Q&A from Paul Jewitt-Harris and Emma Rowe if you want to find out more on this topic! 

If you’ve found this content on leading virtual teams useful, contact us to find out how Lane4 can help your people, managers and leaders during these challenging times.