Key Leadership Practices for Virtual Teams
We are living in an environment where circumstance forces change. Work teams everywhere have been forced to shift quickly to a work from home setting.
Both leaders and team members must cope with many other challenges. A study conducted by the Business Research Consortium (BRC) in association with the American Management Association survey of 1,500 individuals revealed the following seven suggestions for companies that want to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their virtual teams.
- Remember that good virtual leadership is different. It is tempting to believe that traditional leadership qualities are so general that they easily translate to virtual team leadership. Unfortunately, that is just not true.
- Emphasize communication even more. Yes, nearly every leader has been told to “communicate, communicate, and then communicate some more.” What is true for leaders, in general, is doubly true for virtual leaders. In fact, it’s usually true for all virtual team members. Fully 72% of respondents to the BRC survey strongly agreed with the idea that virtual teams require more team communication than do co-located teams.
- Adjust to the medium. The study shows that team member engagement is strongly influenced by the degree of visual feedback members are getting. For example, participants in voice-only virtual meetings (the kind so common in the corporate world today) are much less likely to be engaged than participants in face-to-face meetings and in meetings with high-quality videoconferencing. Without a visual element, leaders must do things such as:
- Pick up on more subtle cues (such as tone of voice)
- Know the nuances of cross-cultural communication
- Ask more questions to get to a common understanding of a problem or an issue
- Do more to establish trust. Because virtual team members often lack the time and opportunities to talk to each other informally, trust can be hard to build. The best virtual leaders tend to build “swift” trust, knowing that distance makes it more difficult. They provide goals, roles, responsibilities, strategies, and a vision to create a common purpose and shared objectives. They establish agreements and make expectations clear so that all team members understand responsibilities and proper etiquette.
- Develop robust processes and, where needed, structures. Not only must virtual leaders make expectations clear, but they also must establish more checkpoints with explicit guidelines.
- Reduce or avoid “storming” when possible. Back in the 1960s, Professor Bruce Tuckman developed the idea that teams need to go through four stages: forming, storming, norming, and performing. Virtual teams are different in that the “storming” stage (during which different members strive for a time to put forward their ideas) is often curtailed. This does not mean virtual teams need to avoid all disagreements and conflicts, only that leaders and members should be proactive and handle different perspectives right away, as opposed to letting them linger.
- Devote resources to development. Most organizations do not develop leaders and other employees in the art of virtual teaming. Yet, the BRC study indicates that a lack of experience among members of virtual teams is a serious challenge. Therefore, we think it pays to educate not only leaders but also potential team members about how to thrive in a virtual team environment. The study also indicates that first-level and middle managers tend to have fewer virtual leadership skills than senior managers and project managers.
About Donna J. Dennis, Ph.D.
Donna is a leadership development professional specializing in solutions for leaders working in virtual and remote teams. Earlier in her career, Donna worked for, Chubb and Son, Inc as well as other corporations in various leadership development positions. Donna’s teaching academic experience includes The Wharton Business School, the University of Pennsylvania and Rider University.