The world of work is changing. New technologies make working anytime from anywhere a reality. Are you already one of the 17.2 million who occasionally telecommute for work in the U.S.? If not, read on and improve your virtual team toolkit, because this is one trend that is here to stay.
Many employees now consider a flexible work schedule and the ability to work from home a key requirement when searching for a new job. They know that working virtually can improve their work/life balance. Many companies know that providing flexible work benefits is an important competitive advantage in hiring and retaining the best skilled individuals. A 2008 Robert Half International Financial Hiring Index, a survey of 1,400 CFOs, indicated that 13% consider telework the best recruiting incentive today for accounting professionals. In earlier surveys, 33% considered telework the best recruiting incentive, and half considered it second best. Companies see immediate financial benefits to a virtual work environment with the ability to reduce physical space and reduce their company’s impact on the environment. As more work becomes globalized and we shift from a manufacturing to a services and knowledge work economy, the virtual work environment will continue to have a profound impact on the workplace.
I recently taught a class on at a local university and one of my students was an executive director for a regional non-profit organization. Although he manages an organization with offices in several cities and is often conducting business over the phone with his staff, he didn’t initially think of himself as a virtual team leader. The more we talked, the more he realized that his satellite offices and employees posed a new and growing challenge to his leadership skills. Like it or not, he was already managing a virtual team.
Wikipedia defines a virtual team, sometimes also known as a geographically dispersed team, «as a group of individuals who work across time, space, and organizational boundaries with links strengthened by webs of communication technology».
Being successful on a virtual team is a lot like being successful on a team that resides in the same office – with some critical differences. Leaders and team members of a virtual team need to be more aware of and sensitive to issues of communication and team building. Why? A virtual team is, by definition, not co-located and sometimes its members have never met in person. Since the normal work relationship-building vehicles aren’t available to the virtual team, you need to be intentional about how they happen. Think about how you communicate with your peers or your employees in your physical office. Do you walk down the hall and stick your head in their office doorway? Do you ask them to join you for a cup of coffee in the break room? Maybe you meet accidentally near the water cooler or in the restroom and catch up on last night’s ball game. These opportunities don’t exist in a virtual team environment, so a good team leader or manager needs to create opportunities and support for this to happen.
While this makes leading a virtual team a challenge, it’s certainly something you can master with some practice. Here are some tips to steer you in the right direction:
Update your leadership style – if you want to lead an effective virtual team, you will need to develop and encourage trust in the team. The first way to do this is to check in with your own leadership style. If you naturally exhibit a command and control leadership style, it may be time to make a change. How can you become more collaborative in your leadership style? Does your leadership style encourage commitment to team goals? Do you foster open communication and encourage your employees to make decision? In their book, The Distance Manager, Kimball and Mareen Duncan Fisher, identify the need for leaders of virtual teams to evolve from a management paradigm of control to one of commitment.
Create and build trust in the team – As a leader, are you operating according to the old management adage, “people respect what you inspect”? While this is still true on some level, leaders of virtual teams need to develop trust that their team members will do their job without your direct physical oversight. Your employees also need to trust that their coworkers, whom they depend on to get their jobs done, will actually deliver on their promises. How can you update job responsibilities and performance standards to ensure that this happens? How can you openly communicate expectations with the team so that everyone is aware of the importance of trust? Building trust can be difficult, because trust engenders trust. How can you, as a leader, model the way? Open and frequent communication, being honest and ethical, acting in a consistent manner and being accessible are all important ways to develop trust with your team.
Create a virtual team climate – Create opportunities for your team to bond right from the start. One way to do this is to start you team meetings with some social or team building time. Perhaps you can start your meeting by asking each team member to give a quick update on what’s new and exciting in their life. Once the team gets to know each other, this will happen naturally. The next step is to create a team objective, making sure everyone knows their role and agrees upon team operating guidelines. Don’t forget to reward and celebrate team accomplishments – not just at the end of a project, but along the way as incremental objectives are achieved. One of the breakthrough ideas for 2010 identified in the January-February issue of Harvard Business Review was research by Teresa M. Amabile, the Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and Steve J. Kramer, a Massachusetts-based researcher and writer. They studied 12,000 daily records of workers and determined that what really motivates workers is making incremental progress in one’s work. That progress was “more frequently associated with positive emotions and high motivation than another other workday event»
Become a virtual team coach/facilitator – Once you have the team launched, your role as a collaborative leader will naturally include facilitation and coaching. The team will look to you to provide facilitation both on processes and on tasks. You have an opportunity to model and facilitate good virtual team communication skills. These will be put to the test as you encourage constructive dialogue and manage conflict and decision-making. You will be called upon to teach and model good feedback. Chances are that your team’s membership will change from time to time, so be ready to welcome and Integrate new team members to the group.
Educate yourself about generational differences – If you are like most workplace teams, your members may span up to four generations of workers. Are you familiar with the differences in the generations, whether they are Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X or Millennials? What is each of these generations looking for in their work life and how does that apply to a virtual team experience? There are scores of books and articles on this subject.
Become a better communicator – Good virtual communication skills are essential for a virtual team. All of the important techniques that you employ in a face-to-face team apply to a virtual team – only more so. Now is a good time to brush up your listening, paraphrasing and questioning skills. In addition to these basics, it’s also important to employ good meeting management skills to keep your team on track. Here are some pointers on how to take basic meeting communication skills and enhance them for a teleconference in a virtual environment:
- Prepare an agenda and visuals for your teleconference meeting.
- Plan for relationship building time and interactivity.
- Identify roles for meeting, i.e. leader, scribe and timekeeper. These roles could be rotated at each meeting.
- Encourage team members to come prepared to the meeting and keep to the timed agenda.
- Develop team meeting ground rules, that might include trust, listening, confidentiality, respect, transparency and candor.
- Practice good phone etiquette by being present on the call (no multi-tasking!), Removing background noise by muting your line and/or using a headset.
- It’s always a good idea to use team members’ names prior to speaking until everyone on the team is familiar with the voices.
- Practice active listening. Truly listening to the pace of others voices will prevent people from talking over each other.
If all of this sounds difficult or too detailed to master, remember that good communication in a virtual team environment is a skill that needs to be developed over time. Try one or two of these tips, become skilled through practice and add another skill to your repertoire. Over time, you’ll naturally develop your own virtual team communication style and add skills to your virtual team toolkit 
 The Distance Manager – A Hands-On Guide to Managing Off-Site Employees and Virtual Teams, Kimball Fisher and Mareen Duncan Fisher, McGraw-Hill, 2001.
 What Really Motivates Workers, January-February 2010, Harvard Business Review
 This material, in part, came from a course, entitled, Leading a Virtual Team: Finding Your Virtual Voice, co-developed by Maureen Blackwell, Maureen Blackwell Associates and Ellen Catalano, of The Catalano Company, 2009.