Many leaders are challenged with the realities of virtual team management. Fortunately, most methods for leading virtual teams are the same as leading your local team, with just a few special nuances. It’s most important to realize that, though managed virtually, these folks are not just avatars on a computer — they are real human beings. For the sake of this discussion, we’ll call them Geographically Dispersed Teams, or GDTs. These GDTs operate every day to represent your organization, so it’s important to provide proper guidelines, feedback, and support, just as you would with any other team:
Well-defined and thoroughly understood expectations are the foundation of any working relationship, whether working face-to-face or long distance. The challenge with GDTs is that distance often is a barrier to effective communication. To be sure you hit the mark with communication, check in early and periodically monitor to confirm that your expectations are realized through the actions of your GDT.
Feedback needs to be specific, timely, accurate and actionable. Again, these requirements are the same as with local teams. However, with the GDT, frequency of feedback is often more critical because of the possible lag in response to feedback due to the distance barrier.
I once had a boss who said, “You always put your best people furthest away from you.” While that may be true, working remotely can be both freeing and frustrating. To keep freedom within defined boundaries and limit frustration, employ these two sub-techniques:
- When defining expectations, be specific about levels of authority, so GDTs know when to act and when to ask.
- Ensure that GDTs know what resources and support are available, and the most effective way to secure those resources.
Research indicates that when team members have a high level of awareness of each other they perform better. This includes understanding different styles, roles and responsibilities, the best time to connect, unusual life circumstances, unique skills, gifts, shortcomings and more. Much of this awareness usually occurs when local teams work together; not so for GDTs. This is probably the major challenge for leaders of GDTs vs. on-site teams and, therefore, an area of virtual team management in which the leader of the GDT should be most attentive. Implement these three steps to improve effectiveness as an active facilitator of awareness:
- Share information about the work itself: Overall progress on goals, project progress, timelines, etc. The group overall needs to constantly know how the team is doing.
Share information about what others are doing: What roles do others play? What activities do they specifically do? What are their capabilities? When are other team members available for support and communication?
Create consistent and periodic interaction: Not all GDTs have the luxury of consistently getting together on-site. Instead, drive collaboration and socialization through phone conferences and web chat. While these forms of communication and interaction aren’t perfect, what makes them effective is that they are regular. Frequent communication, information sharing, participation, and collaboration is essential to the team growing together.
Virtual team management is a new challenge for many modern companies. Proactively manage your GMTs with clear guidelines, regular feedback, consistent support and a high level of awareness and your Geographically Dispersed Teams can dramatically contribute to the bottom line.