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Leading virtual teams: simple tips to do it better
There will be no slowdown in the growth of virtual teams, as technology and global trends drive organisations to hire employees in different locations and encourage them to collaborate to innovate and achieve results.
As a leader of a virtual team, there are distinct challenges, so we’ve come up with five tips to increase your chances of success.
Promote strong group psychological ties
Isolation and a lack of face-to-face interaction with fellow team members encourages individuals in virtual teams to create ingroups and outgroups, which can promote mistrust and affect communication and collaboration.
Leaders should therefore focus on promoting strong psychological ties between individual workers, for example by encouraging non-work related social interaction to break down cultural divides.
Creating, disbanding and re-creating sub-groups with different members can be a useful way for leaders to mitigate against the natural tendencies of team members to stick to obvious ingroups and to build rapport and trust between people who may not otherwise mix. These should, of course, have a work-related purpose that is clear to all involved.
Create norms for the use of communication channels
Virtual teams have natural disadvantages when it comes to communication, for example due to the lack of non-verbal cues and the potential for crossed wires this can cause. Setting norms around communication etiquette will help address these disadvantages.
Isolation and a lack of face-to-face interaction with fellow team members encourages individuals in virtual teams to create ingroups and outgroups.
One of the most important norms to create is around silence. Cramton (2001) identifies “difficulty interpreting the meaning of silence” as a factor influencing trust in virtual teams. And it’s true: it can feel very uncomfortable and disheartening to post a message asking for responses and then receive nothing back.
Leaders should, however, create norms in a range of areas, including:
- How do team members signify urgency?
- In what time frame should you post your response?
- How do you signify agreement without having to post a long message?
- Does everyone have to reply to all messages?
- How often should someone post a message?
- When working on tasks with little collaboration needed, should there be ‘social check-ins’ to avoid long periods of radio silence?
Communication can, and should, be a builder of trust in virtual teams. Unambiguous guidelines over what is expected, and when, are a crucial factor in achieving this.
Scrutinise communication to look for warning signs
This builds on the last point. Leaders should continuously scan communication channels for deviations from an individual’s normal patterns of communication and deviations from the norms established that everyone has agreed to. Passive-aggressive behaviour, overuse of emojis, using all capitals or overuse of punctuation could be cause for concern.
Acting fast when it comes to potential conflict between team members is important because one of the best conflict management techniques available - bringing both parties into a room to resolve differences face-to-face - is unavailable when working virtually. Furthermore, the asynchronous nature of many virtual communication channels makes it harder to resolve differences.
Educate individuals on the nuances of virtual team working
There are challenges with virtual working that are hidden: the natural potential for loneliness and isolation brought about by working remotely seems obvious, but it’s not so obvious that a lack of response to communication in a virtual team may compound these feelings.
Virtual teams have natural disadvantages when it comes to communication, for example due to the lack of non-verbal cues and the potential for crossed wires this can cause.
Knowledge of these hidden challenges helps people tackle them early. Team members may be less likely to categorise people into out-groups and in-groups so quickly, for example, if they know that research shows people working in virtual teams are more likely to overreact to very basic cues to make these categorisations.
Educating team members on the environment they are in, and the challenges it throws up, helps orient them towards prosocial behaviour, which can make it easier for them to buy in to norms around communication (see above).
Ensure individuals benefit from virtual team working
Reward and recognition shouldn’t stop because the team is based virtually. In fact, reward and recognition are important to build team cohesion, reduce feelings of isolation and help team members create positive images of their fellow workers, instead of relying on reactive categorisation.
Malhotra et al (2007) suggest virtual reward ceremonies could be used, with gifts delivered to each individual, followed by a virtual celebration. Alternatively, meetings could be started with recognition of specific successes: these are particularly useful if they are recognised outside of the virtual team i.e. in the organisation in which the virtual team operates.
Additionally, if individual team members report to local managers as well as the manager of the virtual team, giving positive feedback to local managers can be a way to incentivise high performance in the virtual team environment.
On this last note, leaders should remember that often virtual members have non-virtual responsibilities, and these can take precedence simply because they are more visible. That’s why ensuring the virtual team environment is enjoyable to work in, with recognition offered for work well done, is so important.
Finally, don’t forget to recognise attainment in the use of the virtual environment itself. It’s still a relatively embryonic medium for teams: leaders should ensure team members realise they are gaining valuable skills that will be useful in their careers. They should also provide development opportunities where appropriate.