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Seven Principles for Leading Virtual Teams Effectively

There is an art and a science to leading virtual teams. These principles will help you excel at it.

This article was co-authored with Marla Kurz with the support of Arnie Ramirez and Michol Munns.

Remote work used to be voluntary, stable, and reasonably controllable. Remote workers had the time and space to learn and get comfortable with it, and often worked for organizations that were experienced with and supportive of it. The context, even if there were sometime urgency, was “business as usual.”

Now it is mandated, often uncontrollable given competing demands that distract (e.g., kids at home doing online learning) and practically continuous for many. The move to 100% remote work has been wrenching, requiring rapid learning about new technologies and methods. And the context is crisis with all the associated stresses.

To shift successfully to leading a co-located team to leading a virtual one, it helps to have some basic principles for success. Here are seven:

1. Understand What Makes It Challenging. It’s substantially more difficult to lead a virtual team than a co-located one. Why? In part, it’s because communication is substantially less rich than it is in person, even with good video, and there is less opportunity for “observational learning” about the subtleties of team dynamics. Structure and rhythm are not built into the remote work context the way they are in office-based settings, so it’s easy for people to get siloed and feel disconnected, especially if they naturally tend to be a bit introverted. Also, there is much less opportunity for information connection. In additional there is a real risk of productivity declining due to distraction and multi-tasking – research has shown up to a 40% reduction in focus and attention.

2. Establish New Norms Right Away. The norms that work best in virtual teams are different and communication is more challenging, so it’s essential to establish them upfront. Decide, for example, on the boundaries for synchronous work (when the team is together online), for example no meetings before x or after y, but allow flexibility for when your team members work asynchronously. Establish the criteria for what you will meet about and time commitments for online meetings. Establish expectations for maximum response times for written (email or chat) inquiries. To the maximum extent possible, require video and stress that the team must be fully present. Also emphasize that everyone has to come fully prepared for meetings; you need MORE time to prepare when working remotely.

3. Provide More Structure. Coordination is more of a challenge when people are working remotely. So be prepared to focus provide more detail on the design of tasks and the specifics of accountabilities, such as due dates, so it is clear who is doing what and when. To the maximum degree possible, simplify tasks to limit interdependencies so things can be done in sub-teams. Make sure too, that there is clarity about the processes that will be used to do the work, with specifics about the steps and who is responsible for what.

4. Create Rhythms and Rituals. It’s all-too-easy for members of your virtual team to get disconnected from the normal rhythms of work life. So, establish rhythms to create a sense predictability and control. Set up regular meetings, ideally at the same days and times each week. You also can establish “mini-rituals” to help provide a sense of continuity and predictability. For example, you could do a “check-in” at the start of scheduled meetings on a regular basis, or devote some time at the end of the virtual work week to acknowledging what has been accomplished and perhaps recognizing outstanding effort.

5. Encourage Informal Connection. Informal connection among team members tends not to happen in remote work situations, unless you devote effort to encouraging it. Consider doing things such as setting up a dedicated non-work chat channel so people can say “hello” in the morning and engage informally throughout the day. Or schedule “virtual coffee breaks” at the same time every day with a “no work talk” rule. You also can encourage “virtual lunches” among team members to help them get to know each other on a 1:1, and perhaps even create a sign-up system for making this happen (while being careful that some people don’t get left out unless they want that). Remote work also offers a rich array of opportunities to do some “micro team-building.” For example, you could “break the ice” at the start of meetings by asking questions such as “if you could have one superpower, what would be?”

6. Focus on What Motivates Your People. It’s even more important to focus on keeping your people motivated while they are on their own a lot of time. Research on workplace motivation has shown that people tend to have one of three “dominant motivators:” the need for power (feeling powerful and in control), the need for achievement (feeling a sense of accomplishment) and the need of affiliation (feeling connection with the team). So try to identify the dominant motivator for each member of your team and tailor your approach accordingly. For people with a high need for power, help them identify areas in which they can exert control and identify ways in which they can lead others. For people with a high need for achievement, engage them about ways they can feel accomplishment and set short term, achievable objectives. For team members with a high need for affiliation, focus on how they can support the team and get them to help you identify ways to build team spirit.

7. Lead Energetically. Finally, remember that your primary role as a leader is to mobilize, focus and sustain energy in your team. It’s even more important – and significantly more challenging – to do that in a virtual environment. Mobilizing energy is, in large part, about what was discussed previously concerning motivation. This means focusing on what most motivates your each of your people, and structuring work and your interactions accordingly. Focusing energy means being very clear on tasks, goals, processes, and follow-up, while keeping things as simple as possible. Sustaining energy means making virtual meetings as energizing as possible. You can do this, for example, by recognizing and employing distinct vocal “modes” to sustain energy levels. Try to cultivate some distinct “voices” that you use to avoid things being too flat. Examples of such voices include relating/connecting, authoritative/informing, probing/questioning and reflecting/thoughtful. If you normally use hand gestures when you talk, keep doing it!

Above all, approach the experience of learning to lead virtual teams with curiosity and a “growth” mindset, and encourage you team to do the same.

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