2016-05-09

How to lead virtual teams effectively

David Swink

While conducting team effectiveness workshops over the last several years, I have noticed a significant increase in the number of people working on virtual teams. A virtual team is a group of people working together across time and space using electronic communication technology.  Team members may be working with each other, or with customers on the other side of the world and might never meet in person.


A virtual team can respond to customer needs by leveraging the best talent located anywhere in the world. Virtual teams are cost effective because most team members work from home and workers can be on multiple teams servicing multiple customers at the same time. There are, however, challenges that virtual teams have to overcome in order to be their best and they include:

  1. Time zone differences can make it difficult to communicate in real time.
  2. Team communications lose many of the nonverbal components integral in developing trust and clear messaging.
  3. It is difficult to detect lack of engagement in team members.  This can lead to lower productivity and morale.


Here are some tips for leading and working effectively on virtual teams.


A virtual team goes through the same stages as do co-located teams.  Determine what stage a team is in, what challenges might arise in each stage, and how to lead the team forward toward high performance.

  1. Have a face-to-face kick off meeting if possible, when the team first comes together. This helps to build trust among members and establishes important social bonds.  If “in person” meetings are not possible, conduct a videoconference.
  2. Another way to develop informal social bonds is to spotlight a member each week in a video or print interview about their professional background, family, hobbies, and other information that they are comfortable sharing with the team.
  3. Create agreements on how the team will work together; for example, scheduling meetings across time zones, team member roles and responsibilities, etc.
  4. Establish guidelines for which medium to use for communication; i.e., email, chat, intranet, phone, videoconference, etc.
  5. Establish ground rules for virtual meetings; for example, turn off cell phones, don’t us the mute button, etc.
  6. The leader should travel to remote sites, if possible, to increase engagement, and trust with remote members.
  7. Recognize and educate team members about cultural nuances between geographical areas where team members live or work. This will help reduce culture clashes and miscommunication.

 

David Swink is the Chief Creative Officer at Strategic Interactions, Inc. The firm specializes in live, simulation-based learning programs that teach leaders critical communication skills, including how to create and sustain high performing virtual teams. For more information, visit http://www.strategicinteractions.com

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