How to be a successful 'virtual' leader

Written by
Changeboard Team

25 Nov 2011

25 Nov 2011 • by Changeboard Team

Are you a virtual manager?

Because of mobile technology and advances in teleconferencing, geographically dispersed teams are increasingly common in today’s workplace. But the ability to collaborate and distribute information across considerable distances creates special challenges for team leaders.

If you are a distance manager, it’s important to adapt old models of team coordination and supervision to this new reality. You need to tailor your management techniques to the virtual business environment, yet maintain strong ties so you are a “virtual” manager in the sense of distance and technology only. Here are some hints:

Build trust with employees

Old style: When you and all of the people you supervised were in the same workspace together, familiarity and trust grew out of the ordinary, face-to-face interactions that occurred during a typical day. Proximity made it much easier for you and your team to learn each other’s work styles and communication preferences.

Virtual reality: When you’re managing a team of people you don’t see in person very often, you’ll have to make an extra effort to build a sense of trust and team cohesion. Rather than diving immediately into the particulars of a project at hand, devote some time to helping far-flung team members simply get better acquainted.

Whether this gathering is in-person or via teleconference, create a sense of group identity by reinforcing how the team’s purpose supports the company’s overall plans and objectives. Instead of dictating processes and procedures yourself, invite members to jointly determine which communication methods the team will use. Allow time for individuals to ask questions, make comments and raise concerns they might have about the practical aspects of working with dispersed colleagues.

Try not to rush through this step in the interest of getting the project underway. Because members will not be working side by side and will communicate intermittently (and often asynchronously), they need to forge a connection with you and with one another in order to work productively. This liaison will boost their confidence in your leadership prowess as well as the team’s unity.

Share information with others

Old style: The single-location model meant that you, the team leader, were the central clearinghouse for information. You could position yourself as the main channel of communication – issuing directions, providing updates, monitoring progress and alerting members to changes or events that impacted the team’s schedule or purpose.

Virtual reality: Even with current technologies, it still isn’t possible to be everywhere at once. There’s no way you can know exactly what’s happening in every office where a team member is located, or how events are unfolding. By the time you receive an update via phone, text or email, the situation may have already changed. As a  result, it’s even more important than in a central location to grant team members the latitude they need to progress and make decisions.

This is where the trust you developed at the outset comes into play. As a virtual leader, you can’t be the conduit for all information or you’ll run the risk of bogging down the team’s efforts. If you trust your team to do its job, you won’t have to position yourself as a gatekeeper. Assure group members that they do not need to seek your approval on every minor detail or include you in every single email exchange. Instead, propose they copy you and the rest of the team only on updates about the most essential activities or those that will impact the entire team’s schedule.

Resolve problems effectively

Old style: When you and the team were in the same place, you could help solve problems or answer questions in real-time as they arose. Because everyone worked during more or less the same block of time, a crisis before or after hours was a rarity.

Virtual reality: With a geographically dispersed group, a glitch or crisis at 9am in a remote location could mean you’ll receive a panicked phone call at two o’clock in the morning. Unless you want to be on call 24/7, you and the team need to determine at the outset of the project how such events will be handled (except for the most drastic developments that you’d want to handle yourself no matter what the hour or circumstance). It’s a good idea to arrange back-up support in advance and appoint co-leaders who can deal with a matter until you are available.

Motivate team members

Old style: Team members who worked together in the same office could directly observe one another’s progress and accomplishments. As a manager, you could call the team together at a moment’s notice to praise their efforts or celebrate a project milestone.

Virtual reality: Dispersed team members work without such reinforcement. In fact, there’s the risk they may feel like they’re not part of a “bigger picture” at all. To avoid this kind of disconnect and keep your group motivated, you’ll need to work harder at spreading the word about both individual efforts and overall team progress.

Periodic group email updates are good, but often a brief phone call to say “thanks for your hard work” or “good job” will be more powerful. In as little as ten minutes, you can call each participant and personally acknowledge his or her contributions. Remember that even in today’s virtual environment, human nature hasn’t changed, and old-fashioned praise and recognition are still powerful motivators.

As a virtual leader, keep in mind that the more widely dispersed your team, the more likely it is that communication breakdowns, misunderstandings and delays will occur. You can’t always avoid such difficulties, but through strong leadership, you can minimise the impact. You’ll earn your team’s respect and establish real credibility – even in the intangible virtual workplace.