By Richard Davies,Managing Director, GPSgoaltrak
The biggest challenge facing the leaders of virtual teams is how to engage,
align, build trust and ensure people are focused on the right priorities and working effectively – despite the fact they can’t physically see them during the working day.
Virtual teams are people who work across time, distance and organisational boundaries and connect primarily through digital communication.
It’s difficult to foster collaboration, coordination, share information and track the progress of remote team members when you don’t have the luxury of impromptu meetings or the social glue that comes from chitchat over coffee and the connection of working in the same location.
Virtual leaders have to trust they have communicated effectively and that their team members feel supported to solve problems and use their initiative.
Each person must feel accountable, and it’s not easy for a leader to judge levels of commitment from a different time zone and cultural base.
Nearly 50% of organisations now rely on the work of virtual teams. Companies have come to depend on them to recruit and retain top talent, collaborate across boundaries and reduce travel costs. We live in an increasingly connected world.
Most virtual team leaders never receive in-depth holistic training to help them meet their unique challenges. And that’s a problem.
Over 24 years, first at Kellogg’s, then at Shell, I’ve either been a member or a leader of virtual teams that have spanned 20 countries across SE Asia, China, India, North America, and Europe. As I endeavored to overcome the challenges, I learned a few things that I’d like to share. I hope this can help you. My suggestions work equally well if your distributed team is based in one country.
I offer ideas in three areas – People, Process and Systems.
How to find out what makes people tick
It’s vital you get to know what makes your team members tick. I recommend you use a profiling tool. There are many available. Most are psychometric tests which are based on self-reporting online surveys. I have used these tools to help people to appreciate their behavioural preferences and how they differ from their virtual colleagues. I have experienced DISC, Insights, Belbin, I-Opt and Myer Briggs. While I have found them useful to varying degrees, I don’t believe any of them compare to the accuracy and usefulness of Axiometrics which reveals people’s values and how they make decisions. Each person takes a 15-minute online statement arranging thinking exercise which is proven to work across all cultures. An algorithm crunches through the numerical weightings attached to each of the 36 statements. After you receive a report and debrief, you can understand each person’s actual values and how they make decisions. You will be many steps ahead of becoming a successful virtual team leader. You will be equipped to foster trust and will be informed about how to use the diverse thinking styles in your team.
How to connect your team to a purpose
You get higher productivity and increased energy when people are choosing to do things rather than having to do things. Listen to the language of your team. Do you hear people say ‘have to’ all the time? If so, it’s a signal that they are not engaged to a purpose. Here’s a simple and powerful exercise in crafting a compelling team purpose. Author Steve Radcliffe put forward a model for leadership called Future, Engage, Deliver (FED). In short, he recommends that you run an exercise with your team. Ask what they want the future to look like for the team, what will it have achieved – what will people be saying about the team? Energy levels are elevated when people talk about the future. A byproduct of this is that Engagement increases. Once people have agreed on a common vision for the future, they are more aligned and emotionally invested. As a result, people Deliver more since they know why they are working – guided to the agreed future state. The trouble is, most leaders go straight to the ‘Deliver Now’ mantra. You can appreciate the problem with this approach. You can use a series of video team calls to brainstorm this FED exercise or work in subgroups and report back to the full team.
How to run effective virtual team meetings
Establish a recurring meeting schedule either weekly or fortnightly. Bear in mind time zones. Set up some established features for the agenda. I worked in a leadership team where the first agenda item was to share stories of recognition. People thanked colleagues or acknowledged something done by a direct report. This activity sets a positive tone. Leave ‘open space’ on the agenda, this allows people to bring up urgent and the most recent issues. These will always pop up – so it’s best to allow time for this in the design of the agenda.
Ahead of each meeting, ask people for ideas for the agenda. Allow time for discussion and don’t overcrowd the schedule. Alternate the ownership for each session. In a rotation, let each team member build the agenda and run the team meeting.
High-quality video meetings are a must. I recommend Zoom. Using an incredibly stable system makes life easy. The other essential is team storage/chat/knowledge centre. Create a space where your team can exchange ideas and inspire one another. An online workspace ensures that while different team members are working relatively independently, they can see the progress of other team members. I recommend you look at Slack, Evernote or Dropbox (if you mainly need to share files).