Top 10 tips to manage an effective “Virtual” team

“Morning everyone! Is France on? What about Italy, Germany, Russia, India – you in?”

That’s how I start my weekly call with my team. We work together every day but we’re rarely in the same room. Like many people who are part of international companies, my team is ‘virtual’ – geographically dispersed, residing in different countries, some in different time zones, all of them with different cultures, different languages, most of them with a different degree of spoken English.

A virtual team is united by common goals but it’s also made up of individuals, people with their sensibility, their own ‘way.’ For the manager of this kind of team, facilitating an understanding of how each region and culture works is an essential element in making the team effective.

It’s all too easy to get hung up on the challenges of working in a virtual, dispersed environment and forget that diversity is a huge asset. In addition to all the other functions which go along with any management role, as the leader of a virtual team you are responsible for encouraging its members to become ‘multiculturally aware.’ The key is to embrace each other’s wider cultural difference while at the same time creating cohesion and a sense of belonging within the team itself.

Building an effective group must start with learning how each member perceives the others, removing uncertainty and focusing on mutual support. It’s about empathy, collaboration, and more important, creating that sense of belonging to a group. Your focus is to create ‘rapport’.

Humans thrive on a sense of belonging. We support a football club, we identify ourselves as members of a nation, we define ourselves professionally and based on our values. Working within the same office makes it easier to create a personal bond with our colleagues. Daily face to face contact greases the wheels of our relationships. In a virtual team, distance makes everything a little bit more complicated.

To overcome this, leaders needs to create a ‘one team’ spirit, an environment of mutual understanding where members can learn from each other. That means you need to facilitate discussion, generate curiosity, create a bond between remote employees and ensure everyone feels part of something great, where their contribution helps everyone else to win.

“Empathy is key. Listen first, talk after”

Build rapport and trust

Virtual or not, a group of people with common goals has to feel part of a team, despite geography, culture and time difference. The goal is to establish trust – simply put, to create a group capable of winning together. The team must understand that ‘we’ is stronger than ‘I’ and that the contribution that each virtual member will bring success, for the entire group.

Empathy is a powerful tool to achieve this. You need to be genuinely interested in each individual, learn their differences, and understand how their unique approach and style can be most effective.

Be mindful of cultural sensitivity

We’ve all heard that joke that starts with, “There’s a French, a German and an Italian guy….” The outcome of the joke is that one of those countries always shines at the expense of the others, right? Everyone is aware of national stereotypes, some comic, some maybe harsh. Stereotypes exist because we’re trying to simplify a complex world and make sense of it, but they can be destructive.

Focus your energy in helping your team to embrace difference and learn how their peers reacts to situations. Make those differences your ally by transforming them into opportunities and helping everyone to learn from them. Sharing good practices is a great way to understand how a specific region works. More importantly, it’s often the case that something which worked well in one place will also succeed elsewhere. Sharing makes the team more powerful and creates a rapport.

Facilitate communication

In a virtual team we don’t have the luxury of body language or visual contact. Ironically, the tech tools which make remote teamwork possible like Skype, phone and email can also distort our understanding of one another’s meaning. It’s all too easy to misunderstand, especially when team members have different levels of skill with your common language. For me, that’s most often been English.

This can be a tricky topic to handle sensitively, but it’s too important to ignore. When the understanding level of each individual is different, adapt their speech to the lowest denominator. Calmly help the speaker if you feel the rest of the team doesn’t understand, keeping it polite and constructive. To strengthen communication and team bonding, organize live meeting whenever time and budget allows. Make sure your team calls each other regularly and doesn’t fall into the trap of 0ver-reliance on email, where the potential for misunderstanding and relationship breakdown is greatest.

Bring clarity

In an ever-changing work environment where everything moves at the speed of light, strategies and decisions have to be crystal clear to everyone. As a leader, you must minimize the potential for miscommunication. Articulate and repeat your current objectives and directions as often as possible in as many formats as possible. Explain on calls, summary via email, check understanding in messages. Clarity has an even more critical meaning in a virtual team where language barriers and imperfect communication tools put your message at risk.

It’s also important to preserve 1-2-1 communication with your team. It’s not only your chance to reiterate goals – it’s also your time to gather their feedback and encourage them to raise points they may not feel comfortable sharing with the whole team, for whatever reason.

Empower the team

Great teams blossom when their members have the opportunity to grow. Give everyone the chance to lead, whether it’s through taking responsibility for a whole project or becoming the ‘pilot in command’ of one specific activity.

Feeling ‘in charge’ is very important for an employee and it becomes even more important in a virtual environment. Your team will feel empowered by the feeling their manager is counting on them. They get a boost from the knowledge you trust them to take command, and you benefit from having more time to focus on other projects.

One word of warning: make sure you balance the share of responsibility amongst everyone in the team. Creating an unbalanced environment, where a few people are perceived as always ‘getting the good jobs,’ can be devastating for morale. Rotate responsibilities, make everyone accountable and ensure that they articulate their successes and failures with the team. Giving power to your virtual team helps them feeling more engaged while freeing you.

Respect timing

“What the hell!” This is what your employee will say if you schedule a call at 7PM or 5AM!

If you handle a large territory like EMEAI or if you work for a US or Asian company, your virtual team will likely reside in a different time zones. Be mindful of time differences. It’s not easy to find the perfect timing for a global call but you must make sure you’re your employees are in a receptive state if you want to reach your goal.

Of course there will be a few occasions where some emergency will require everyone to make sacrifices. But ‘emergencies’ should never become routine. Requiring your team to sacrifice their valuable personal time means they will be less focused during the call itself and it erodes the trust and respect you’ve invested in building. If it’s impossible to find a time that works for everyone, consider if a decision can be made with a smaller group.

Finally, don’t be afraid to question whether a meeting is really necessary. You’d think carefully about getting your virtual team together face to face, but too often we arrange conference calls without considering if they represent best use of our valuable time and resources. Bottom line: respect everyone’s time.

Here’s my top 10 tips for managing a virtual team:

  1. Be mindful of the linguistic abilities and time differences
  2. Show genuine interest in people – be empathetic
  3. Build rapport between peers and create a climate of trust
  4. Make yourself available for 1:1 and whole team meetings
  5. Be specific in your guidance and repeat it often
  6. Rotate power between your team members
  7. Encourage cultural understanding by facilitating dialogue
  8. Share good regional practices
  9. Reward team members when they work well together
  10. Create opportunities for face-to-face team bonding

Managing a virtual team may feel like a herculean effort, but if you focus on the positives there is nothing more rewarding. You’ll learn how different culture behave, how they strategize, how they handle issues, how they follow your lead. Embrace the challenge, grow everyone in your group and you’ll all reap the benefits.

Picture credits: Masao Kawamoto

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