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How to Lead a High Performing Virtual Team

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For most of my career, working inside of corporations, I was not co-located with my team.  At one point, my boss was in LA, I was in Virginia and the people I supervised were literally all around the country. During those years, I learned a lot about how to create high performing virtual teams. It stretched my skills beyond managing the work effort to finding new and creative ways to build relationships and create a web of strength among all of the team members.

This past year, I worked with a client who was unsure about his new leadership position where he would have a large virtual team.  He told me he loves leading people, developing strong relationships and doing great work together.  He also told me that he had no idea how to do that without sitting in the same office and was thinking about leaving his organization. Before he had a chance to hate his new job, I challenged him to break the frame and redefine his concept of team.  In the months to follow, he successfully reframed, stretched and grew his leadership skills into the virtual space. 

Here are many of the ideas we covered to create a high performing virtual team.  If you’ve ever led a team, co-located or dispersed, many of these concepts will feel familiar. 

Social Media is Great Training for Virtual Team Leadership

In the social media age, it’s easy to understand how you can feel very connected to people that you’re conversing with 140 characters at a time.  They feel like friends and it feels like you know them, because you do, but only part of who they are.  When you’re on the same team, the goal is to take that feeling of camaraderie deeper. 

On social media, that means scheduling a time to talk or meet to get to know each other.  Works for high performing virtual teams too!  Get to know your people as human beings… not only workers in another state or country. 

TIP: Get to know the people behind the profile picture. This is your team, you’re in it together!

Not All Communication Vehicles Are Created Equal

We all know that you can email, IM, tweet or pick up the phone to connect with someone.  Hopefully, when you have a quick question, you’re likely to make a different choice than when you’re delivering performance feedback. Still, if all you do is IM or you tend to default to email… you’re missing out. 

Voice to voice is not a hardship!  In fact, now it’s incredibly easy to meet eye to eye thanks to free technologies like G+ and Skype. 

TIP: If you want to create high performing virtual teams, create opportunities to see each other.  Body language, eye contact and tone all matter.  It’s hard to discern sarcasm in an IM…

Suck It Up and Get on a Plane

One in person meeting can skyrocket the effectiveness of a relationship.  Sometimes I would fly to them, sometimes they would come to me and annually we tried to get the entire team in a room. During the in person meetings, we not only made a lot of progress on the work, but also got to know each other as people and created shared memories. 

TIP: If budget allows, not only get the team together for a working session, but also plan on some shared experiences… bowling, mini golf or dinner gives time for bonding.

Be Creative with Your Team Building

If you’d make a coffee run with your team member down the hall, you can schedule the same with your colleague in another office. Agree on a time, fill up your cup, and jump on a Hangout. Take 15 minutes just to check in on your day, take a deep breath and enjoy the java. 

I’ve been on virtual teams that had baby showers with games and prizes, book clubs and movie nights out (we bought tickets for everyone and we opened our next team meeting talking about the movie). Ask your team for suggestions and get support putting them into motion.

TIP: You’re only limited by your creativity. The important thing is injecting some play while creating opportunities to deepen relationships.

Make Regularly Scheduled 1x1s a Priority

I’m a huge advocate of having 1x1s with all of your direct reports every two weeks.  Yes, you will likely meet in-between but the 1×1 is a time to keep the agenda focused on both work and career development. 

When you’re not co-located, it can be easy to let 1x1s slide.  Nobody is going to knock on your office door when you’re busy to remind you of your scheduled time.  Especially in a virtual team environment, people don’t see all of the things that take up your day and can truly feel out there on their own if 1x1s are constantly canceled. 

TIP: When virtual, it’s tempting to check in on email while on the phone and squeeze in a little multi-tasking. Don’t do it.  Give the person on the phone 100% of your attention.

Let People Lead

You may feel that as the leader on a virtual team, you need to remind them who’s in charge.  Hello – they know. If your voice is the only one on your conference calls, you have a problem.  Let others facilitate, lead the agenda, give important status updates on their work and lead team-wide programs.

TIP: Help your team members grow their leadership skills and expertise in facilitating a virtual team by giving them meaty initiatives to lead. Be there, just like you would in person, to brainstorm, support and remove roadblocks. 

Create a Shared Virtual Workspace

There are many collaboration technologies out there to make it easy to work on shared documents and track updates.  Whether it’s a workplace with status updates or a presentation that needs charts from multiple team members, emailing back and forth is a thing of the past. 

You may need to try out a few tools before you figure out what works for you and your team.  I have had success using both Google Docs and Basecamp. There are many good choices out there that will save you time and headaches from going through your email for old versions and latest updates.

TIP:  Once you decide to go with a technology, really commit to making it work.  It’s easy to think, “I’ll email just this time…” but it sets the tone for the entire team.

Agree on Protocols and Etiquette

On some teams, you accept all meeting invites and on others it’s okay to decline, send a substitute, or ask for a meeting to be moved. Set the tone for how you will work as a team and don’t leave people guessing. 

It’s also imperative to be respectful of time zones.  Don’t always schedule meetings for 11 AM ET in the USA and expect your Australian team members to be jumping for joy.

TIP:  Make time to talk about the way you work and the way you want to work as a team. Create agreements, be explicit, be a role model for follow through.  

What about Virtual Team Leadership If You’re Not “The Leader?”

If you’ve read all the way to this point and are thinking, “This is all great, but I’m not the team leader, what can I do?” Here are a few ideas:

Make suggestions
If you see opportunities for improvement, speak up!  Schedule a call or hangout to share your ideas on how to improve the work and team culture too.  Team-wide conference calls may not the right time.

Raise your hand
Step up to lead while creating opportunities to deepen your relationships with your colleagues too.  You can’t swing by your boss’s office but you can pick up the phone.

Be Human
Don’t worry about always being formal.  Take a deep breath show people who you are.  They can’t see your silly socks… so tell them and send a pic too!

Reach out
Touch base with your colleagues and be a connector.  Initiate moments of connection.  

Some of my fondest moments from my career took place on virtual teams and those connections remain strong today, many years later. 

I have a list of free and low cost team building ideas for virtual teams.  If you’re interested, shoot me an email and I’m happy to share.

Have you been on or led a virtual team?  What would you add?

 
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