- From creating communication guidelines to taking a collective break, here are virtual team strategies.
- Keep virtual team members engaged through frequent check-ins and regular recognition.
- More “planned” communication is an important key to effective leadership of virtual teams.
Leading virtual teams has always presented a challenge to managers of these groups, but the COVID-19 pandemic and the move of many workers to working from home led to a sharp increase in virtual teams worldwide. The unexpected success of many remote-working teams, and the preference of many employees to continue working full-time or part-time from home, means that there will likely be an increase in virtual teams and a need for developing better strategies to lead them.
Here are tried and true tips for leading virtual teams, derived from leadership research.
1. Create communication guidelines.
A critical first step for virtual teams is to create clear guidelines to govern team communication. These should be as specific as possible—covering all types of electronic communication—and they should be done collaboratively so that all team members “buy-in” and follow the rules.
For example, guidelines should state which media (email, videoconference, text, etc.) to use for different types of communication. For example, text or email for quick, one-on-one interactions; videoconferencing for team discussions; video or phone for one-on-one coaching sessions, etc. They can be as general or as specific (e.g., rules for what information should go in the subject line of emails) as the team wants.
2. Create ethical guidelines.
While you’re at it, why not collaboratively and explicitly create guidelines to ensure that team members are doing the right thing? Team members can respond to questions such as: “What do we stand for?” “What do we, and our customers, value?” Not only will this keep team members “in bounds,” but it is a great team-building exercise and a means for getting everyone committed to core values.
3. Create a great team.
Make sure to put the necessary time and energy into selecting team members through good human resources practices—selecting members with the right set of skills and experiences that will benefit the team and the organization. It is a good idea to review your screening and selection processes with an eye toward the special needs and requirements of remote teams.
4. Establish team structure.
Clarify team members’ roles (and your own). Determine and make clear who reports to whom and which members should work together on specific tasks or projects. As with all of these tips, clarity is essential.
5. Forge collaboration and interdependence.
The very definition of a “team” is that members are interdependent (they rely on one another), and they work together. Find ways to foster good working relationships among team members. This aspect of truly engaging in “team-building” is a crucial challenge for team leaders and one they need to spend time working on.
6. Check in frequently.
Schedule time to check in with team members individually and collectively. Remote work means there is no opportunity for “managing/leading by walking around,” so ensure that you have frequent and regular contact with everyone. They should feel that you are present and available.
7. Establish trust.
Good leader-member relations are built on trust, so be consistent and fair in dealing with team members. Let them know that they can count on you. Work on building strong relationships with each and every team member.
8. Keep team members informed.
An all-too-common problem for most leaders is limiting the amount of information communicated to team members. Because there are fewer opportunities for informal information gathering in the virtual environment, make sure that you are regularly broadcasting information about team status, performance, and issues related to other teams and the broader organization. This can be done in a mini-newsletter sent via email or another form of announcement. Make sure to encourage members to ask you questions. Team members should never feel “left in the dark.”
[I’m borrowing this term, coined by my former student and current colleague Stefanie Johnson, who authored the best-seller by the same name]. This refers to issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion. According to Johnson, there are two basic human needs—to belong and to be unique. A good leader “inclusifies” by supporting team diversity, encouraging different viewpoints, and empathizing with different cultural perspectives and experiences of team members while still making team members feel included. Here is a short video to learn more about this.
10. Keep technologically up-to-date.
This means ensuring that you are using the best technology and platforms for leading your virtual team and that team members have the very best tools for working remotely. Don’t let poor technology rob your team of performance and a sense of unity.
11. Don’t forget training.
Just because team members aren’t co-located doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be ongoing training and development of employees. More and more, training is conducted online, so here is another area that needs a leader’s full attention. Make sure to regularly assess training needs and provide good resources for individual and team development.
12. Set challenging (but attainable) goals.
Like training, goal-setting can be overlooked in the virtual environment. Engage in best practices in goal-setting (e.g., collaborative goal-setting, setting SMART goals, etc.).
13. Provide regular feedback.
Make sure that virtual teams are able to see the results of their work efforts and can recognize when they fall short by providing constructive suggestions. This is a crucial part of leading any team, but virtual teams need to be regularly informed about their performance, individually and collectively.
14. Recognize and reward.
In the same vein, make sure to publicly acknowledge and reward virtual team members for their accomplishments. Be fair in the distribution of rewards.
15. Encourage “informal” gatherings.
Set up some “virtual happy hours” for remote workers to socialize together and encourage subgroups to meet informally on their own to become better acquainted and de-stress a bit. There should be a rule that no work takes place at these informal gatherings.
16. Monitor and manage conflict.
Conflict is natural in all types of teams, but conflict in virtual teams can be difficult to detect, so leaders need to be particularly sensitive to the warning signs of interpersonal or intragroup conflict. Trust and open and honest communication will make it more likely that a leader is made aware of the conflict in the team and can take some action.
17. Take a (collective) break.
Research suggests that high-performing virtual teams actually put in more work time than co-located teams. One executive told me that he declared a whole-team “holiday” where all team members were “ordered” to take a three-day break from work to recharge and refresh. Shared breaks, like shared work, can lead to greater team cohesiveness.
Johnson, S.K. (2020). Inclusify: The power of uniqueness and belonging to build innovative teams. New York: Harper Business.
Mattiske, C. (2020). Leading virtual teams: Managing from a distance during the coronavirus. Sydney, Australia: TPC.
Riggio, R.E. (2020). Daily leadership development: 365 steps to becoming a better leader. Barnes & Noble.