Developing High-performance Virtual Teams!
When Mark Harrison and his team made the transition from working out of their office to working out of their homes during the first lockdown caused by Covid-19, he assumed that managing his team would not be any more difficult than it had been so far. Over the years, he and his team had developed a dynamic within the team that helped them withstand the demands of their job. There was no reason to believe that he needed to be a different kind of leader now.
He soon found out that he was mistaken.
Virtual teams are neither new nor rare. Even before the pandemic, organizations were using virtual teams to serve multiple purposes — to tap into a larger pool of global talent, to bring in new perspectives and capabilities, to ‘follow the sun’ with their operations. But very few organizations have cracked the code on creating high-performance virtual teams.
Why are virtual teams trickier to manage?
- Cultural insulation
A co-located team exists physically in the same office. Cultural values are exhibited and imbibed in every interaction between colleagues. In a virtual environment, however, physical separation dilutes the importance of cultural commonalities and expectations. Virtual teams become micro-organizations, each having its own culture and value systems.
- Limited visibility
In a co-located team, interactions are both verbal and non-verbal. Team members pick up cues from each other’s body language, and this streamlines communication to a large extent. In a virtual team, members are heard more than they are seen. On the rare occasion that you can see each other, you are restricted to facial expressions — and even that depends on lighting, your broadband speed and the devices being used.
- Additional stressors
Passing through the doors to your office is as symbolic as it is physical: it’s the point where we mentally switch over from domestic concerns to professional ones. But when you are working from home, domestic and professional responsibilities vie with each other for attention. As a result, your attention may not always be fully on one or the other.
- FOMO (fear of missing out)
In hybrid teams (i.e., teams where some members operate out of the same office while others work remotely), a complaint that often arises is that the co-located team members are a ‘micro-unit’ within the team. Left unchecked, this can lead to a sense of us-versus-them. When opportunities are given to co-located team members, it reinforces the belief that proximity does lead to preferential treatment.
Leaders of virtual teams have their work cut out for them.
For one, the traditional challenges of managing a team remain — you still have to understand and work on your team members’ skill and morale levels, adapting your leadership style to the person and the context (How?). For another, the interpersonal dynamics of a virtual team are completely different and require a completely different leadership toolkit to manage effectively.
- Build cohesion
A virtual team’s sense of being a single unit depends heavily on how connected the team members feel to each other. Left to their individual inclinations, team members might form their own micro-teams. Others who are natural introverts might prefer to stay aloof. A leader’s job is to bring them all together continuously and consistently so that there is always a feeling of belonging to a larger group.
- Build comfort
Within a virtual team, almost every interaction has to be planned in advance. Informal, unscheduled catch-ups can be both disruptive and puzzling. Such interventions may be perceived by team members as attempts to observe and check up on them, making them feel that they are not trusted to operate autonomously. A leader’s job is to dilute this sense of scrutiny that team members might feel, and build a comfortable rapport instead.
- Build purpose
In a virtual team, members operate in silos for much of the time. Individual priorities and targets consume team members’ efforts, leaving them little time to see things from a broader angle. A leader’s job is to cultivate and nurture a larger sense of purpose among team members so that they can draw inspiration from what they are contributing to.
- Build support
In a virtual team, being united in pursuit of the team’s goal does not necessarily mean that team members are in sync with each other. Indeed, individual circumstances may be vastly different from one another. A leader’s job is to foster empathy within and among team members so that they can continue to support one another when necessary.
Leaders of virtual teams need a structured approach for success.
To elicit consistent high-quality results from their teams, leaders must approach the demands of their role with a multi-layered, structured approach (How?). They will need to be agile in responding to the needs of their teams, yet steadfast in their progress towards the team’s goals. It is a difficult ask, but not an impossible one. And it is the quality of this leadership that will separate successful organizations from others as more and more teams start working remotely!
Interested? Contact us now.