On Friday you were leading a traditional team and on Monday you are leading a temporary virtual team. What could go wrong? If you haven’t found out already, leading virtual teams is not the same as leading collocated teams.

There are a wide range of survey results found on the internet regarding the overall effectiveness of virtual teams – unfortunately, “acceptable” performance levels, as seen by executive teams, generally run under 50%. Your high performing team may suffer unless you (and they) get comfortable operating remotely for extended periods of time.

Having led purely remote teams for almost 20 years, here some of my tips for leading virtual teams – particularly ones that were not designed from the ground up to be virtual teams.

The top tips for successfully leading a Virtual Team (VT), even if it’s only on a temporary basis are…

I. “Leaders need to prepare more completely for everything”

This applies to team meetings, one-on-one strategic, tactical or directive meetings, organizational communications and any needed coaching conversations.

Very quickly, team members will develop their own individual ways and timeframes for addressing and accomplishing their goals. Planning and having regularly scheduled meetings, ideally on the same day and time each week allows individuals to structure their time to meet deadlines. In virtual teams, leaders need to establish and distribute their meeting agendas in advance and start and finish meetings on time in order to provide consistent and reliable grounding of the team. Leaders should also plan time to provide and receive regular feedback within the team, whether it’s in a group environment or with individuals on phone calls.

II. “If you can hold the meeting using video conferencing – do it”

Leading without visual clues is extremely difficult on every level… especially for temporary VT leaders. The amount of information and feedback we perceive visually is often not appreciated, until it is gone.

III. “Leaders must work hard to maintain and continue to build trust”

Even though your time leading a virtual team (VT) may be limited, work still needs to get done. When statistics are sited for the failure of VT’s, a lack of trust is usually at the top of the list.

Therefore, virtual team leaders must exhibit a pronounced ability to maintain and build good relationships with team members – and be willing to put in extra effort to ensure that this happens while the team is dispersed.

IV. “Leaders must be viewed as actively listening to those they lead”

If leaders are perceived to be interested in communicating in only one direction, while operating as a virtual team, the team can very easily begin to shut down. This scenario can happen unintentionally as leaders begin to contact team members with only “things that need to get done” conversations.

Virtual team leaders must listen with intention because there simply is no “water cooler/lunchroom” conversation that occurs naturally in traditional teams.

V. “Leaders must ensure that needed guidance and coaching takes place”

Effective coaching is always a challenge for most leaders and virtual team leaders have a tendency to “let things slide”, especially when they have to deliver unpleasant feedback… it just feels even more awkward and uncomfortable then meeting with someone in person.

Even knowing when coaching is needed is difficult to determine when leaders lack the opportunity to observe their team members working and interacting with the rest of the team on a regular basis. VT leaders will need to substitute daily observations with more tangible and measurable aspects of productivity.

Sometimes the only clue that “something is not right” is the lack of conversation that accompanies a team members participation in meetings. In VT’s, silence is not golden, nor is it agreement, it is usually a precursor to “we have a problem” and if not addressed promptly the problems just get bigger over time, spread throughout the team and the silence on the phone will grow more and more intense.

VI. “Virtual Team Leaders MUST over Communicate”

For VT leaders, attention to communication, with details, is critically important. It is necessary to leave the least amount of room possible for “guessing” on the part of your team. Leaders may feel like they are over suppling teams with details and information – but that is seldom the case. Leaders are perceived as being the primary source of information – not company websites.

A lack of relayed details and information can turn quickly into major perception issues as people on VT’s tend to be more limited in who they converse with on a regular basis. People will fill any informational void with their own interpretations or those of another potentially uniformed member of the team or a single perceived “authority” based within the organization. People seldom “go positive” in these situations.

Team members can only judge situations, teammates, intent, implications – and their leader – by what is shown to them. The leader’s tone, energy and enthusiasm transmit both the value and any concerns regarding relayed information or issues – ensure that all hear it fully and the right way.

VII. “Virtual Team Leaders CAN NOT be the only one talking in meetings”

VT leaders cannot allow members of the team to remain quiet throughout meetings. Ensure that no one gets to “sit out” the meetings or the meetings will begin to be dominated by the most vocal members and fewer ideas and solution options will reach the group.

It may be necessary to call on those that do not participate on a regular basis. Ask silent individuals to share their thoughts about issues based upon their area of expertise. Keep in mind, everyone involved in a virtual meeting is participating in some fashion, at least within their minds. Bring them into the conversation. It may be awkward at first but shortly team members will learn that they need to be participants and not simply be present online.

Additionally, virtual teams and their leaders will benefit from fostering Shared Leadership practices. These benefits go beyond sharing the leadership load when multiple objectives are in play. Stand-alone “special projects” within the team are an especially good way to involve others in leading all or portions of the team meetings.

There are many benefits in doing this; Future team leaders will begin to understand the complexity of leading VT’s, recognition within the group is enhanced, multiple views and leadership styles surface.

Shared leadership is a good way to get Individuals to communicate with each other and not simply up and down the traditional “chain of command”. Many times, a leader will find that they have a very good leader “hidden” within the group who can help the team accomplish its objectives.

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Finally, accept that as a virtual team leader, you must do more work ‘behind the scenes’ in order to; understand your team members, ensure that they remain engaged in the projects, build trust and relationships, minimize isolation and make them feel like they are part of the overall organization and ensure that they are actively participating within the virtual team.

There is also the added work “behind the scenes” in ensuring that the mechanics and technologies used when operating in a virtual environment, are accommodated and maintained.

Of course, after that, there remains all the “normal” activities required of leaders that head up teams within an organization.

Next Blog, “Managing a Temporary Virtual Team”

The above is one of a series of articles discussing the creation, development and care of effective dispersed or virtual teams. David spent 18 years working in these types of teams, from Individual contributor to Director of a team of field-based engineers and support staff. These articles are based upon his successful experiences both leading and participating in virtual teams.