Leading Virtual Teams: 12 Powerful Ways to Lead a Team You Can’t See

How do you lead a team that’s not there?

It’s hard enough to be a good leader when your teammates are in the same room.  But what about when they aren’t even in the same time zone?

When you can’t look someone directly in the eye, things get much more challenging.  Yet leading virtual teams is the future.  Studies show that 25% of jobs involve teaming from distant locations.  That number is only going to grow.

If you are a leader, chances are good you may be leading some of them soon, if you aren’t already.  So today we’ll look at 12 things you can do to overcome the challenge of leading a team that’s somewhere else.

Leading Virtual Teams - 12 Powerful Ways to Lead a Team You Can't See

Shrinking the Distance

When it comes to leading virtual teams, the physical distance between you and your teammates is the price you pay to realize all the other advantages of remote collaboration.

That distance makes communication harder.  Nuance is lost, non-verbals become non-existant, and it’s harder for teammates to feel connected.  A sense of isolation can set in, and as that happens you lose the potential that teamwork was supposed to provide in the first place.

As a friend of mine in the finance industry pointed out, successful teamwork under these conditions is all about finding creative ways to shrink the distance between you and the team.

Leaders find creative ways to shink the distance between team members. Click To Tweet

When you find yourself leading virtual teams, here are 12 ways to help you close that gap successfully.

12 Ways to Close the Gap

1. Set a rhythm.  People like a sense of predictability, and it’s no different when leading virtual teams.  Maybe it’s a Monday morning phone huddle to set weekly goals, or a Friday video conference to share updates. In between, you might push out Wednesday meeting notes via email.

Whatever fits best for your organization, a predictable and steady communications flow will help your teammates feel connected and involved.

Tip: be mindful of time zone differences and try to accomodate the needs of others, not just what’s convenient to you.

2. Choose the channels.  There are dozens of ways to exchange information, and people have their preferences.  But if everyone is not on the same platforms, it becomes harder to share, people might get left out, and you risk missing something critical.

Confer with the team (and company policy) and pick two or three platforms and try to keep everyone there.

3. Have a place to share.  Don’t let key documents get buried in mail boxes or lost in the depths of someone’s file tree forest.  Instead, make a place where teammates can share.

Free tools like Google Drive, or paid ones like Dropbox allow you to set up a shared folder system so documents like meeting agendas, working papers, and presentations can be shared quickly and easily.

4. Build a break room.  A lot of team building and communication happens informally, but that’s hard to do when your team is miles away.  Overcome the distance by setting up a place for casual communication; think of it as a virtual water cooler to reinforce the social bonds of your team.

A colleague of mine uses a private group on Yammer to keep her teammates connected informally.  You can achieve the same thing with a closed Facebook group for social sharing.

5. Get (virtually) face to face.  If you are leading, that means that you are closely involved with the process of goal-setting, providing feedback and evaluating performance.  This kind of exchange is critical, so if you can’t do this in person, plan to do it through a video link.

Free tools like Skype or Google Hangouts help by making non-verbal communication more evident, and when you go through the effort to set it up, you are making it clear that the discussion is important.

6. Set expectations.   It’s a good idea to have a simple, clear procedure for how you run conference calls so that you don’t waste time, and your team comes away feeling it was worth the effort.  Beyond that, set clear expectations about how the team will talk throughout the week.

They need to know when you expect an immediate phone call, and when a routine email is OK.  And information flow shouldn’t be one-way.  Push information to them; think about what they need and try to get it for them.  Make sure you have several reliable ways to contact each other.

7. Sing praises.  Distance makes it hard to simply pat someone on the back, give a reassuring smile, or say thanks for a job well done.  But lots of positive reinforcement is one way teams grow strong.

Some ways to do this include adding public praise for good work during virtual meetings, announcing a weekly VIP, or having group members nominate each other for “play of the week.”  And when someone does something good, by all means, pick up the phone and tell them why it made you happy.

Tip: Don’t let a ringing phone become synonomous with bad news; call when there’s something good to share, too.

Leading Virtual Teams - Go Visit Them8. Go and see.  If budget allows, plan to visit your team in person as soon as you can.   The best way to learn about someone is to see them in their environment.  Then when they speak, you will have a better understanding of their personal context and the challenges they face.

Tip:  During the visit, try to meet the other people your teammate works with, visit the facilities they use, and work with the tools they work with.  There’s no better way to gain perspective than to get down in the trenches with them.

9. Gather the team.  As hard as you may try, there is still no substitute for getting to know someone face to face.  Even professional bloggers have annual conferences.  If there’s a quarterly or annual get-together, that’s great.  If not, see if you can put one on the calendar.

Once you do have your teammates gathered, be sure to plan in some fun team-building time in addition to the production-focused stuff.  If you are leading virtual teams, one of the most important outcomes of a conference is strengthening the trust and social bonds among your teammates.

10. Get inputs from outstations.  The best meetings are the ones where everyone has a chance to contribute meaningfully.  If you are the only one talking, that can’t happen.

As you develop your agendas, build in ways for others to contribute regularly.  Schedule periodic updates, progress reports, or a time for sharing “best practices” and “hot tips” as a way to keep teammates productively involved.

Tip:  During virtual meetings, as each person speaks, put a tick by their name on your attendance list.  As you start to see some names without any ticks, call on them and ask for their thoughts.  It helps the shy be heard, and keeps everyone’s head in the game.

11. Light up the dashboard.  Since you can’t peer over shoulders or watch the work in progress, it harder to know how well your team is actually doing.  Having clear metrics of performance visible for all to see can take some of the guess work out of what is really going on.

Whether it’s an automated dashboard, or a set of standard charts, make some kind of visual progress display a part of your meeting rhythm, and give teammates a chance to bring everyone up to date.

12. Lighten up, Francis.  Just because it’s work doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. If fact, it’s better for everyone if you can find ways to inject humor or interest to keep the social lubricant flowing.

One of several fun ideas proposed by Lucid involves taking a picture of your shoes.   You could also do virtual office tours or compete for most unusual coffee mug.  Look for something that all can share in, fits the personality of the team, and brings people together.

In fact, here are 15 Pretty Good Virtual Team-Building Ideas that can help the whole team feel more connected.

Leading Virtual Teams – The Takeaway

Technology enables us to do more in less time with teams that can be many places at once.  But it comes at a cost.

Leading virtual teams successfully means you have to be very intentional about how you communicate, how you keep others engaged, and what you do to strengthen the bonds of trust on the team.

But come to think of it, that’s not so different from what what we need to be doing, even when we have the whole team in the same room.

Lead On!

Want to learn more about how to lead a strong, engaged virtual team? Check out the Leading Virtual Teams Course:  Keys to Leadership Success in the Virtual World.

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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