Five Keys to Leading Virtually

photo of leading virtually with dispersed team mates

photo of virtual team matesAs the polar vortex took the Midwest by surprise last week, I connected with my friends and colleagues who work in the areas most affected by the extreme temperatures. Other than frost on the inside of the window and a few heating repair bills, it seemed like a regular week for these professionals. They all work from home and have done so for years. They don’t have to worry about a nasty commute or dangerous roads. Their worst-case scenario is a toddler bursting in the room during a video chat.

Working on virtual teams has become the norm in many organizations. New team members are hired after meeting via Skype and may go years before they meet their boss. It’s so common it’s natural, even though when we imagine taking a job without ever meeting the boss in person, it sounds bizarre. But working virtually comes with many challenges as well. What any good virtual team leader will tell you is leading virtually takes more effort and planning than leading in person. Here are a few keys to leading a virtual team successfully.

  1. Hire for fit. When you select people to join your team, remember that everyone has a different level of comfort with working remotely. What’s natural for some is isolating and frustrating for others. While it’s important that whoever you hire has the technical skills and ability to be successful, it’s equally important that their work styles and motivational drivers match the unique environment of working virtually. Someone with a strong need to be a part of a group and have deep relationships with others might struggle when working virtually. At a minimum, be open about the challenges they might experience on the job and invite them to be honest about their needs.
  2. Don’t neglect face time. Ideally, virtual teams should still get together in person periodically, but that might not be possible. Spending time together in person can be particularly helpful when a team is newly forming. This in-person experience helps build a foundation for future relationships that will be cultivated and fostered virtually. Becoming familiar with a team member’s facial expressions, tone, and personality will enable team members to quickly identify issues from nonverbal communication that might go unnoticed without a foundation of in-person experiences.
  3. Use tech to collaborate. On my virtual team, we turn our cameras on for every call. I’ll be the first to admit, I’m often not camera ready. It takes time and confidence to get used to staring at your own face on the computer screen while talking to others. But having the camera on connects us all more intimately. When we established the camera-on preference for all calls, I let everyone know I am not concerned with their professional attire. Wearing comfy clothes is one of the best perks of working from home. Hoodies and baseball hats are welcome as long as everyone shows up ready to contribute.
  4. Overcommunicate. Because the distance and time between calls is significant, virtual leaders must be even more clear and expressive about the vision, strategy, goals, and expectations for the team. Reinforce how and when team members are expected to collaborate. Team roles and responsibilities must be so clear that there is little room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation. Because in a virtual environment, what can be misinterpreted will be misinterpreted. Your communication strategy must be an attack against uncertainty.
  5. Have fun. The need to connect interpersonally and laugh with one another cannot be understated. When starting any virtual meeting, be intentional about creating space for informal conversations. Ask team members if they have fun plans for the weekend. Check on the weather they’re experiencing locally. Get to know their sports teams. Identify what’s impacting them locally so you can narrow the gap that physical distance creates.

You’ll know you’re leading the team successfully when you hear them say, “Can you imagine going into the office to work every day? That sounds awful!”