Teams - Remote and Virtual

by Claire Snowdon and Mark Bouch

Leadership

Virtual team management is the ability to organise and coordinate with effect a group whose members are not in the same location or time zone, and may not even work for the same organisation. The predictor of success is – as always – clarity of purpose. But group participation in achieving that is more than ever important to compensate for lost context. Virtual team management requires deeper understanding of people, process and technology and recognition that trust is a more limiting factor compared with face to face interactions.

Oliver Serrat – Asian Development Bank Aug 2009

Virtual and remote team leaders should think carefully about their dominant leadership style and its effectiveness. Effective leadership makes a fundamental contribution to team performance in any environment, although styles of leadership that are effective with a co-located team may need adaptation when applied in a remote team scenario.

The enduring challenge for the leader of a virtual or remote team is to adopt and adapt a leadership style that is appropriate both to the team as a whole and the individuals within it. Leaders will also need to learn to adapt their style, depending on the situation and the needs of the individuals that they seek to lead (for more about leadership styles, see Choosing and using leadership styles).

Leaders must make the time for effective leadership. They cannot do this if 100 per cent of their time is committed to delivering operational tasks. They will need to be available at odd hours for people in different time-zones or with flexible working patterns, be prepared to travel a lot, be proactive communicators and able to sustain their own energy in order to sustain the team’s energy (for more, see the topic on Personal Energy).

Leadership of virtual and remote working (VRW) teams

To be a successful virtual and remote team leader requires belief that

  1. Virtual and remote teams work
  2. People can be trusted in a remote environment
  3. Operational work can be performed in remote mode without loss of performance.

Leadership in a business context is about identifying what needs to be done, aligning effort to that end and making things happen. It just takes more work in a virtual environment.

Tips

Well-defined roles, responsibilities and ways of working (team fundamentals) are even more important for virtual and remote teams than for face-to-face teams. Effective remote team leaders emphasise the development of clear ‘intent’, team norms, workflow schedules and periodic progress reviews. These essentials provide guidance once the team is dispersed to its working locations.

Remote team leaders also need to understand and master traditional leadership skills and, in addition, to understand and apply the information and communications technologies available to support virtual teams.

Finally, leaders need to understand and be able to work effectively in the ambiguity of a remote environment, judging when to over-communicate or to leave people alone, and switching between face-to-face and electronic communication as the situation and individual demands.

Tips for successful VRW leadership

Here are some useful virtual/remote working team (VRW) leadership tips.

  • Try to have a face-to-face meeting in the ‘formative’ stages of a team’s life-cycle, to engage people in how they will deliver the team’s goal, build trust and develop team spirit; this investment will pay-off dramatically if problems arise later.
  • Establish strong and consistent protocols around meetings and workflow.
  • Create team guidelines for sending and replying to email and phone calls and establish an agreed telephone, e-mail, and video-conferencing etiquette.
Email etiquette

Do

  • Be aware of the culture of the person you are writing to.
  • Ask advice if this culture is new to you.
  • If it’s important, follow up with a call.

Don’ts

  • Don’t use exclamations.
  • Don’t use all caps.
  • Don’t sign an email as urgent if it isn’t.
  • Don’t type shorthand, as it may be misunderstood
  • Ensure a rhythm of business to provide structure and prevent gaps in communication: quarterly gatherings, perhaps, or weekly phone meetings. Establish how meetings will be scheduled and who needs to attend.
  • Vary the time of meetings so that no one group or individual is consistently having to meet after hours.
  • Establish how the team will manage workflow, share, review and modify information.
  • Avoid disproportionate investment in groupware. Research and understand the technologies available to connect people; talk to other people who have successfully applied them, and find out what worked. Identify a budget that allows you to add new tools as team members develop the capability to make effective use of them.

At team meetings

  • When using telephone, video or web-conferencing equipment, make sure it’s thoroughly tested before every meeting
  • At any virtual meeting, have someone make introductions at the beginning of meeting and include what their responsibilities to the team are
  • Make sure everyone participates; otherwise, silence will be taken as agreement.

Encourage social interaction between virtual/remote team members.

  • Try to ‘meet’ periodically to integrate new members and celebrate success. When you can’t meet face-to-face, create or use a forum, either internal or open source, to share pictures, profiles and information of all the team members, so that they can relate to each other personally.
  • Technology can lead to sterile communication that is impersonal and can easily lead to misunderstandings. Personal communication between team members (face to face or over the telephone) is as, if not more, important than in a co-located team. As long as it does not interfere with the work being done, foster team ‘chat’, so that team members discover more about each other and build rapport.