Leading a team or a company is a glorious journey of contradictions, chaos, and challenge. You have to create an unshakeable vision that inspires people. But you also have to be nimble and flexible to keep up with the fast-paced market. You have to work furiously to meet deadlines and best competitors. But you also have to cultivate an open culture that fosters excellence, collaboration, innovation and creativity. And speaking of people, you have to manage multiple employees with different attitudes, skills, experience, mindsets, values and working styles. You have to forge a strong working relationship with every single one of them so that you can coach and develop their skills. But at the same time, you have to lead the team or the company as a whole, and think about your own role as a manager or leader. And did we mention those deadlines?
Now take all those people and their deadlines and remove your ability to sit down with them face-to-face in an office. Or if you want to take it up a notch, build geographically dispersed teams scattered across the globe, in different cultures, countries and time zones. This is the challenge you face leading virtual teams.
The Challenges of Virtual Teams
Virtual and remote teams are fast becoming the future of work. But like everything in business, distributed teams come with a swathe of risks and challenges. It’s difficult to build organic coworker interaction and access to the company’s community and culture in virtual teams. This means that companies are less likely to benefit from the chance conversations in the corridor that spark creative ideas or the unplanned brainstorm sessions that tackle longstanding problems. It also means that remote employees miss out on the very real human need to be social. And there is a price to pay: as consulting company Gallup revealed in a widespread business survey, employees of fully remote teams are generally less engaged than other employees. And it all comes down to how they are managed, developed and led.
And then there are the practical challenges as well. Global teams face language barriers and different time zones that make it difficult to work together seamlessly. These challenges can also lead to miscommunication, misunderstanding, and a lack of clarity on work or shifting deadlines.
But that doesn’t mean that leading virtual or global teams successfully is impossible. Last year, Forbes published a list of 125 companies where all or the majority of the team work remotely, including successful companies such as Automattic, Buffer, and Summit CPA Group. That’s not even counting the hundreds of national or multinational companies who have offices in different states or countries that have to work together.
So how do we overcome those challenges and get to the fantastic benefits of leading a virtual team? Because there are several benefits. Numerous reports and studies have shown that strong virtual teams boast increased productivity, teamwork and communication. Virtual and global teams allow companies to hire the best talent, no matter where they live, and keep that talent throughout the various challenges and changes of life. Companies with geographically dispersed teams can also thrive on a leaner company structure with increased global market access, lower office costs and increased nimbleness, with teams across timezones able to respond to issues 24/7.
Sound good? Well if you’re planning remotely manage a distributed team, or if you’re already leading remote teams and want to learn more, here are our 7 steps to leading your virtual team to success.
Choose the Right People
Unfortunately, the same quiet, convenience and flexibility of working in virtual teams that skyrockets productivity and attracts talent can be exploited by a few rotten apples. And it’s very difficult to catch or monitor such cases to prevent people from slacking off until it starts affecting the rest of the team’s work. Even then, it may be hard to track down a culprit who is good at covering their tracks. This means you may be faced with the awful process of interrogating everyone until you find the slacker, a process that can severely damage team culture and trust months after the perpetrator has been fired.
To prevent this scenario, you might try micromanaging or using activity-monitoring software. But again, both make it impossible to create the thriving environment of trust, teamwork and creativity that the best virtual teams enjoy.So here’s what we think is the best solution: get it right from the start. Choose people who show they are self-starters, great communicators, highly empathetic and have good character. And then trust them to deliver. Instead of wasting time and energy trying to investigate, apportion blame, micromanage or monitor them, invest it in building a strong culture and community that can pull together to deliver results.
But how do you ensure they get work done?
Have a Strong Onboarding Process and Clear Procedures
It’s hard enough joining a new team as an office employee. For employees joining a remote or virtual team, it’s even easier to feel disconnected or sidelined without the physical reminder of proximity or a specific work environment. That’s why it’s incredibly important to have both a strong onboarding process and clear procedures, guidelines and systems that facilitate the smooth flow of teamwork. Not only does this help new employees get up to speed, having known standards and work procedures provides an environment that helps to hold everyone accountable to delivering work.
Remote company Zapier considers onboarding so important that they actually bring new hires and their managers together to work and learn alongside each other for a week. You don’t have to go quite that far, particularly if you don’t have the budget. But it definitely helps to have a standard process that new hires go through so they can learn how to work remotely with you, what’s expected of them, and get introduced to the rest of the distributed team.
Build Rapport and Community
In Diane Coutu’s landmark Harvard Business Review article How Resilience Works, she tells the story of how shared values and a mission helped to keep global delivery company UPS together after an agonizing 1997 strike. As UPS Chairman and CEO Mike Eskew explained: “It was a hugely difficult time, like a family feud… But what saved us was our Noble Purpose. Whatever side people were on, they all shared a common set of values.”
As the manager or leader of a virtual team, you can tap into the energy of shared values when leading remote teams to create a shared purpose and community.
You can also encourage regular brainstorming sessions and conversations on values that are important to your company, such as customer service.
But don’t just talk about values. Take other, concrete steps to building the supportive community and culture that will motivate your virtual team and keep them resilient and creative. Schedule in regular team check-ins and hangouts to give your virtual team the opportunity to share challenges and solutions and connect both socially and creatively. Assign buddies or pairs across the team to keep up the flow of communication. And speaking of communication…
With today’s fast-moving projects and ever-looming deadlines, it’s easy to accidentally leave remote workers out of the loop. That’s why Mandy Brown, the CEO of Editorially, actively encourages over-communication in managing virtual teams, because “On a remote team, opportunities for misunderstanding between teammates distributed across both time and geography magnify.”
So spell out everyone’s responsibilities, roles, and contributions. Hold daily team meetings or reports so that everyone can catch each other up on what they’re working on, challenges that have arisen, or circumstances that have changed.
Also remember that remote workers aren’t able to rely on constant visual cues or constant access to the office gossip vine. That means that if you don’t explicitly communicate something as a leader to a remote team, it’s the same as staying silent. As Jeff Robbins, founder of the company Lullabot puts it, “If you don’t communicate well at a distributed company, you don’t exist.” So make it a habit to over-communicate with your teams about what’s happening and what you’re thinking as a leader.
Create a Knowledge Base for your Virtual Team
In today’s digital world, it’s absolutely vital to set up an internal knowledge base to manage your company’s information and data. But having a well-structured and useful knowledge base is even more vital to leading a successful virtual team. Virtual knowledge bases help to prevent knowledge roadblocks that can stop projects in their tracks when a particular specialist is asleep in a different timezone. An internal knowledge base also helps to document the clear processes and procedures that keep remote teams working together smoothly. Just make sure you check in regularly to see if there are any further knowledge base resources the team needs that can help them work more efficiently or address a particular challenge.
If you don’t already have an internal knowledge base, or you want to improve your current system, we’ve got a great guide here to get you started.
Have Regular One-on-Ones with your Virtual Team
We’ve spoken before about how the humble one-on-one meeting is a vital productivity tool that can help you reap fantastic results as a leader. But the benefits of one-on-one meetings are amplified for virtual and global teams because they help you to tackle two of the main challenges with geographically dispersed teams:
Communication – When you remotely manage virtual or distributed teams, you often miss out on all the crucial nonverbal communication or casual corridor remarks that tell you how your team is really going or if there are any issues you need to address. However, a regular one-on-one meeting provides the chance to concentrate on each member and see how they’re going, and also gives them the opportunity to proactively discuss problems with you.
Development – Gallup’s survey revealed that many employees in remote teams reported a lack of meaningful feedback and professional development, which undoubtedly contributed to their lower levels of engagement. However, one-on-one meetings are fantastic opportunities to practice servant leadership and provide meaningful feedback and performance coaching regularly. So take the time to schedule one-on-one meetings with each of your virtual team members in your calendar – it will be an investment that pays dividends.
You’ve done it. You’ve built a strong virtual team, supported by great processes, shared knowledge, and a vibrant culture and virtual community. Now it’s time to keep finding ways to communicate, bond, and strengthen that community.
One handy way to do all three things at once is to take the time to celebrate the team and it’s successes. Many remote and distributed teams and companies take the money they save on office space and use it to bring people together for special occasions. Manon DeFelice, founder and CEO of the company Inkwell, brings her remote team together for joint pitches and then celebratory dinners. Software company Balsamiq Studios stages all-team retreats. If you’re at that stage of your company, brilliant. If not, you can still use the wonders of modern technology to encourage your geographically dispersed team members to reach out and celebrate together. Organize surprise cake deliveries that coincide with virtual team meetings. Send special thank you emails or gift vouchers. And make a habit of encouraging regular shout-outs.