Virtual Teams - How Do You Lead Effectively

Virtual Teams – How Do You Lead Effectively

September 17, 2014
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The Situation – What To Consider:

Whether you lead a virtual team that home offices or travels, the concepts on how to effectively lead a virtual team are the same as long as everyone, including yourself, are all in different locations. However, there are some situations that will require you to engage differently to have the impact you would like:

1. Is your team truly global? How many time zones do you have the pleasure of working across? How many distinct cultures are on your team? (the term culture isn’t just important in global teams, if you live in a country where you have cultural diversity, you should also consider this AND if you work in an organization that has distinct cultures and you lead several of them, then again, you will want to consider this.)
2. Does your team all office in the same location and you are the remote person/leader?
3. Is your team all new to “home office”or “remote” work?

There is a great book that can help you to overcome some of the challenges that both time and distance can cause called Leading Effective Virtual Teams.

“Management is doing things right; Leadership is doing the right things” – Peter Drucker

When you think about leading any team it all boils down to communication, however, when leading virtual teams, communication becomes even more critical. If you are not known for your prowess in communication or you’re known as a person of “little words”, then don’t worry, you can still lead effectively, as long as you can truly understand and care to truly understand how your team members may be feeling.

For some of the fears/concerns/pros/cons to telecommuting or being a home office based employee, see also the blog I’ve written on home office success: 5 Steps To Home Office Success

Your Audience – What To Consider:
Just like in any leadership role, a lot of your style has to be dictated by your audience. Are these folks you are leading hourly employees who will be punching a time clock or are these skilled leaders in a management or director level role?

Are these team members new to remote office work or are they veterans?

What is their remote office atmosphere? Do they have pets at home or children at home? Are they able to work in a productive environment and/or what will they need to be productive? What are they most concerned about?

Ultimately, the more you can know about each person you are leading or managing the more effectively you will be able to address individual unique needs versus patterns that are obvious trends to address.
Assessing Your Situation – Budget & Communication Options:
Let’s talk about communication first and then address budget.

Communication – 3 Considerations:
1. Assessments
2. The mediums
3. The frequency

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said” – Peter Drucker

Assessments: My recommendation would be to conduct 2 methods for assessing the needs of the team versus your style/approach.

1. Utilize a survey to uncover anonymous answers that will help you gauge overall trends and to gain access to the “voice of your customer” – your employee, in a way that allows for candid, thought provoking commentary.

(NOTICE: I did not state that this is a performance assessment or evaluation. Those may be necessary to gauge the effectiveness of the individual, however, that topic is not addressed in this blog. That is a horse of a completely different color)

2. Conduct a one-on-one discussion with each team member on the topic of “home office success” and focus it all on them. Use the approach of Them – Us – Fit – Act (their situation, their needs, their feelings followed by what you and the organization need, what are the elements that fit perfectly, and lastly what action is needed to have both of your needs met).

Mediums: What mediums are you going to use to ensure communication between team members, with customers or people within your organization, and you?

“Words are only painted fire; a look is the fire itself” – Mark Twain

Some of the options to consider –

  • Video Chat – for instance; Skype or FaceTime
  • Conference Calls/Webinars (you can record for team members who weren’t able to attend the call, you can use a white board and write/draw and you can share documents easily); examples are webex companies or www.speek.com
  • In person team meetings (and for goodness sakes make it fun – you don’t have to blow your budget to make it fun – happy to help you with ideas)
  • Formal/Informal one-on-one or small group chats over the phone
  • Social mediums (setting up a private Facebook or LinkedIn group or use of instant messenger programs) – these are critical to allowing connectivity amongst your team members for quick conversations or camaraderie.
  • Email
  • Dropbox (an online portal for sharing documents with a team)
  • Video Messaging (Record a video and distribute, especially if you have a large extended virtual team)..and ask for video messages from them as well.
  • Newsletters or Blogs

Frequency: Frequency of communication is important. If it’s too much then your team will feel like you don’t trust them and if it’s too little they will feel unimportant or irrelevant. As well if there is too much communication it will distract them from their primarily role/function and if there is too little they are likely to feel disconnected or not feel an active part of a team. Ultimately, you have to determine the frequency that is best for your virtual team.

Additionally, the size of your team or extended team is critical, but let’s assume you have 8 direct reports or less, then the recommendation below may help and may set the stage for your leaders to also mimic your leadership style.

“Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy, and mutual valuing” – Rollo May

Victoria’s Communication Plan
Here is what has worked for me and hopefully will help you as well:

Annually

Survey for engagement/happiness/communication
One-on-One Conversation with each team member to discuss what’s working/what’s not & to set their personal and professional goals for the year
In person team strategy session & team building

Quarterly

Video Messaging (Updates to the annual strategy, achievement to goal, continuing the journey) – to be cascaded throughout the organization & encourage video messages back OR this can be a blog style approach
Leadership Skype Meeting or Webinar (celebrate, achievement to goal, different leader leads the quarterly meeting each time
All employee (extended team) Webinar that involves random survey questions and engagement from the audience that is primarily a Q&A opportunity to keep the entire organization connected.

Monthly

Email to the entire organization with updates on achievement to goal & celebrations
One-on-One “check up” with each leader/direct report

Weekly

Team conference call (always at the same time and on the same day with the rule that it isn’t mandatory but rather encouraged and as long as 2 ppl show up the meeting happens) – notes or recording is distributed for those that weren’t in attendance
Post on social media platform some thing inspirational, thought provoking or helpful to get the entire organization engaged/contributing

Daily

Texting or responding to instant messages/emails
Choose randomly 1-2 ppl to simply send a note to, call, or text to be sure they know you remember something personal or professional that is happening and is important to that person (only hit each person with this communication 1-2x/week)
Budget & Communication Continued….

Now that you have chosen your communication strategy it’s important to accurately budget to ensure that you can accomplish your plan. Common pitfalls are that budgeted dollars get cut later in the year and if you planned your annual meeting in person that is often the first item that gets cut, so be sure to schedule your meeting for 3-4 months before your fiscal year end. Additionally, be sure to work in your assessments and one-on-one conversations prior to budgeting season so that you’ll have the voice of your audience to guide you in some of the budgeting impact.

That being said, here are the steps that I would recommend in approaching a budget for communication. Recognizing that no one has a line item in their budget for communication, you are welcome to laugh, but it is important that you recognize what your mediums and frequency will cost and then categorizing them correctly and remembering where you put these items in your budget is important.

1. Create a communication plan & be sure you consider and include:
-technology needed
-# of users
-Frequency
-potential location (for in person meeting(s)) and consider having the meeting “off peak season” in a market where specials/deals can be easily negotiated and your business will be welcomed

2. Affix costs to each item
-Costs for the platform used/monthly memberships if applicable (for instance to conduct surveys using www.surveymonkey.com is free for a certain number of surveys but it has limitations, review the options prior to budgeting)
-Airline costs (have an assistant check on airline prices from each person’s home town to potential destinations to create an estimate and be sure to add fees in for extra baggage costs and/or inflation)
-Document your plan for either having your team members carpool, use shuttle service, or public transportation
-Be sure to estimate costs for potential guest speakers

3. Communicate these items transparently with your team
-What you are budgeting
-Where you have flexibility and where you need their help in achieving the budget and ask for their feedback on certain items to really be creative and collaborative in the thinking and engagement. This will help everyone to “own” communication and the budget associated with it so that it isn’t just left up to you.

*Items that we have not yet covered and may be important to you or your organization are legal matters, tax deductions, rules for engagement/privacy with the mediums you choose. Those topics are incredibly important, however, incredibly boring for me and much more delightful for someone in human resources, legal, accounting, or marketing to address. I certainly would be happy to contribute my experiences or personal perspective on all of these topics with you individually but have not chosen to address them in this blog.

I leave you with this thought…remember empathy when it comes to your team and be sure to try on their shoes from time to time to be sure you really understand where they are coming from. It will save you from turnover and keep you forever grounded.

“I like Cinderella, I really do. She has a good work ethic. I appreciate a good hard-working gal. And she likes the shoes. The fairy tale is all about the shoe at the end, and I’m a big shoe girl” – Amy Adams

My quotes can’t all be serious right?

Cheers to you virtual leaders and if you need help along the way, I’d be happy to lend a hand.