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How to Lead a Virtual Team

More American workers are breaking out of traditional business structures – office cubicles and the 9-to-5 – and working remotely. According to a 2017 Gallup survey, more than 40% of Americans surveyed in 2016 spent some time working remotely, an industry-wide increase of four percentage points from 2012.

Employees—and even employers—are seeing benefits of remote positions, including increased productivity, flexibility and longevity, as those who work remotely, work longer, according to survey results.

Challenges Among Virtual Teams

Though employees are praising the engagement and encouragement they receive despite working off-site, there are disadvantages to being part of a virtual team.

  • Not working in an office can take a heavy toll on team dynamics by creating an “us-versus-them” mentality that divides a remote team from their shared goals and understandings.
  • Socially distant virtual teams are less likely to trust and properly coordinate with their co-workers which, in turn, can inhibit their work.

Strategies for Leading a Virtual Team

Effectively managing employees that you may never meet face-to-face can be challenging. However, managers and employers can better overcome these challenges by adapting management principles for virtual teams. The strategies below will better aid you in developing what’s most effective for a remote team.

Clearly Defined Goals and Roles

To combat the distance, make sure everyone is clear and coordinated in their tasks; a rhythm of regular meetings encourages co-workers to better cooperate, and clear, regulated communication and communication processes promote effective dialog. Define both individual and group roles, tasks and goals so that everyone knows what is expected of them and individuals are accountable for their work.

Communication

Naturally, communication plays a vital role in developing an effective and involved team, whether on- or off-site. In the case of virtual teams, effective communication tools are necessary where physical presence may otherwise express a message. Take advantage of the various types of online communication available to make up for lack of physical presence.

Video communications are important and should be used frequently when appropriate; as human beings, we rely more on the cues from visual, physical gestures than text in a chat. Oftentimes a reminder of that humanity is important for building trust and understanding within a team.

Other types of communication should be taken advantage of as well, depending on the task or activity on hand. Online platforms, such as Google Hangouts, Slack and Fleep, that aid in project management tasks can be utilized by virtual team members to send instant messages and real-time file sharing, while document sharing programs like Google Docs make report preparation easier to accomplish as a group.

Structure and Accountability

Structure is integral to teams that rely on scattered screens instead of a shared office. According to a 2015 Deloitte case study, leaders can help develop effective performance habits and create structure by scheduling who will do what by when, becoming the “hub” of activity and initiating discussion of what an excellent outcome would look like.

Tracking individuals’ progress can not only help each member of the team remain accountable but also aid them in remaining focused on independent and cooperative tasks. Although micro-managing may seem counterproductive, even the smallest of details can provide a virtual team the important information to do a job well done.

Informal Connections

Even “water cooler” situations can benefit virtual teams by developing relationships that go beyond work and screens. Create a safe space for small talk and personality by un-muting the phone to hear what’s going on on the other end of the line; use gifs and emoticons to convey feelings otherwise left unsaid. It’s okay to be a little less formal if it means better communication with the rest of the team.

One-on-One’s

Finally, in the midst of working online, it may be easy to forget the typical office situations that should be replicated even in the virtual world. Comprehensive one-on-ones that include positive feedback can boost engagement and job satisfaction while making sure employees are on track with their work.

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