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4 Keys To Managing Virtual Teams

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It wasn’t so long ago that science fiction portrayed the workplace of the future as using flying cars to get to the office where robot assistants would write memos. But technology has reimagined what’s possible for the workplace environment in organizations like yours.

Now a growing number of workers don’t even show up in the office as half of all organizations use virtual teams with members spread across the country or even around the globe. Virtual teams offer distinct advantages for leaders in your company, including the potential to boost productivity and employee flexibility while reducing the time and cost of travel.

However, virtual teams aren’t always used to their fullest potential as leaders struggle to harness their potential to meet real-world productivity benchmarks. More organizations are awakening to the reality that new challenges come with the advantages. Your own managers and leaders have likely already encountered difficulties, but they may be encouraged to know they are not alone.

The Ivey Business Journal puts it simply:

The best practices aren’t being implemented … research indicates that less than 20 percent of virtual teams receive training on how to work effectively as a virtual team, leaving most virtual leaders and their team members operating in unproductive ways.

They conducted a survey of 304 individuals who worked on separate virtual teams. When evaluated by third-party stakeholders, 27% of the 48 teams studied had overall performance rated as adequate or below adequate. Team members rated their own team’s performance at that less-than-stellar level 17% of the time.

When they discovered that “one-quarter of virtual teams failed to meet expectations,” IBJ researchers followed up with 35 successful virtual team leaders to discover what made those teams succeed.

Researchers found that leaders who were successful when managing virtual teams engaged in some pretty traditional leadership habits to make the most of the new high-tech workplace. They intentionally built trust in relationships. They held team members accountable. They motivated their teams to support virtual work and collaboration.

In other words, these leaders didn’t necessarily require new skill-sets to succeed as much as they consistently applied proven leadership methods to the new team dynamic. Rather than assuming the technology eliminated the need to lead, they adapted what they knew to the new environment.

Different, But the Same

The truth is that managing virtual teams requires the same skills from leaders and managers as face-to-face team leadership. When it comes right down to it, the basics are the same no matter how much distance separates team members.

After all, people are people, so people skills always matter. Teamwork truths are always the same. However, successful leaders know those skills must be applied differently depending on the physical location of a team.

This idea of virtual teams requiring an approach that is different, but the same, has the support of Forbes writer Erin Meyer. In her article, she shares that her international business school, INSEAD, has been bombarded with requests to set up a program showing executives the skills they’ll need to meet the challenges of managing virtual teams.

Her four keys are summarized here:

1. You must lead differently
Leaders of co-located teams can help bridge distance by acting as facilitators. Meyers suggests virtual teams especially need managers to strip away ambiguity and give clear instruction. Assuming everyone knows something will create exponentially more problems than in a physical workplace where people bump into one another in the halls. Leaders can avoid this problem by taking pro-active communication to the next level, giving virtual teams a healthy definition of the mission and a detailed map to the goal.

2. You must arrive at decisions differently
A leader’s decision-making style can be deeply connected to his or her local company culture. Consequently, if your team has expanded globally, members will need explicit descriptions of the decision-making process. Your leaders must also be willing to adapt decisions-making processes and try out different approaches depending on cultural and distance factors. A clear but flexible decision-making process has the potential to get the best results.

3. You must build trust differently
More than most teams, virtual teams translate reliability into trust. Members need to know they have highly defined processes to get things done—again and again. Recreating the wheel every time will quickly drain energy and cause frustrations. By investing time on the front end to create reliable systems, your managers can set their teams up for long-term success. That reliability allows trust to grow quickly, enabling team members to focus on producing their best work and achieving optimal results instead of worrying they might be wasting their time.

4. You must communicate differently
Even when your leaders communicate over distance via technology, non-verbal communication remains vitally important. INSEAD Professor Ian Woodward has demonstrated through practical exercises that moving your body while speaking enhances your voice quality. Even though the team may not be physically present, when your managers act as if they are, they can better communicate and bridge the distance gap.

The bottom line is that your managers don't need a new leadership playbook to succeed with virtual teams; they need to apply the same proven leadership skills differently. Your leaders can take comfort knowing that, no matter what kind of team they are leading, the fundamentals at the core remain the same—leadership, decision-making, trust, and communication.



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