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What is the best way to lead virtual teams?



Many workers who are currently in forced isolation may choose to work from home indefinitely. What will that mean for leaders leading virtual teams?

Ted Talk: How Virtual Leadership is changing the Game

Researchers Dr Will Phelps and Virginia Kane, both from the University of New South Wales, have investigated best practice in leading virtual teams. Their research showed that the rules that apply to face-to-face teams do not necessarily apply to virtual teams. They suggest leaders must be more disciplined in their approach to managing these teams. This includes ensuring team members make time to bond and set up appropriate team norms, clarify roles, promote individual accountability, regulate team communication and engagement, and choose enabling technology that is fit for purpose. Critically, they also found that technology can enhance individual contributions and diverse thinking.

How to build high performance virtual teams?

1. Use technology for divergent thinking, brainstorming, and to take decisive action.

We are in the middle of a Zoom boom, with teams conducting meetings as well as social catch-ups over video link. There are other great collaboration technologies out there too that can help teams stay organised and connected, such as Microsoft’s Yammer, collaboration tools such as Google Docs, and project management tools like Monday and Slack.

2. Provide more structure, not less

Setting a routine of morning check-ins as a team is a great way to kick-start the day. It only needs to be a quick wrap up from each team member as to their priorities for the day, anything still overhanging and any ‘stucks’ or roadblocks that they need help with. Not only does this promote collaboration, it also provides accountability.

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3. Slow down to speed up

Communicating via video can be a clunky affair, with people talking over one another and accidentally interrupting. Take the time to set up some norms, to allocate a chairperson and minutes taker for each session. The chair can then invite individuals to speak and guide the conversation, often paraphrasing what is said, to ensure the whole team has a chance to participate and that everyone understands what is being said.

4. Develop a role charter

Leaders need to be vigilant about defining and communicating roles in virtual teams to prevent diffusion of responsibility or, conversely, people assuming too much responsibility for a project and forming a middle layer of management between the leader and the team.

YouTube: Optimizing virtual teams

5. Relationships take extra effort to nurture

Virtual teams often spend too little time engaging in the types of social conversations that happen naturally when teams are face-to-face. This can hinder the development of strong and supportive team relationships. Leaders should ensure that they keep up the tradition of celebrating birthdays and work anniversaries and organise times for the team to interact in a far more informal way.

6. Some things must still happen face to face

Some conversations such as brainstorming new product ideas, which require a less structured approach, should ideally be facilitated to occur in person in order to stimulate the flow of conversation.

Four Ways to Improve Communication for Virtual Teams | Speexx

7. Unmute the distractions

The researchers also discovered that not muting calls encouraged a freer and more engaging flow of conversation. It also allows for jokes and shared laughter which fosters team morale and cohesion. Providing, of course, that your team has relatively quiet places at home to work from.

8. Use video technology whenever possible

Conference calls are out and video calls are in. Not only is it a way to ensure equal participation, but it helps leaders to pick up non-verbal cues such as when a member is trying to have input or agreeing/ disagreeing with what is being said.

9. Strategically over-communicate

In order to facilitate trust and clarity, leaders should ensure that all key conversations take place when every team member is on the call. This will also help team members feel valued and supported.

3 Proven Strategies for Leading Virtual Teams | Leading with Trust
Virtual Teams

10. Limit boundary permeability and buffer your team

Whilst team members can be added more easily to virtual teams, than to conventional teams, a leader needs to strictly regulate this. New members must be introduced socially and encouraged to set up one-on-one meetings with each member of the team separately to get to know each other and build trust.

Will this new way of work become the new normal?