The impact of COVID-19 is being felt across organisations in significant and multiple ways. Apart from the obvious economic impact, many businesses have implemented work-from-home policies and practices in order to minimise potential exposure to workers and help keep their workforce safe.
However, working from home requires a different kind of leadership for managers charged with leading virtual teams. Without this kind of leadership, engagement and collaboration can suffer – with subsequent falls in performance and productivity.
The good news is that leading effective virtual teams does not require a huge investment in technology. Effective virtual teaming requires connecting on a human level, for example, sharing a virtual meal or coffee together, and applying a structured, ‘fit for purpose’ approach to teaming.
Virtual team considerations
UNSW’s Associate Professor Will Felps and former MBA student Virginia Kane conducted research on best practices in leading virtual teams. They found that the rules that apply to face-to-face teams do not necessarily apply to virtual teams and suggest managers must be more disciplined in their approach to managing virtual teams.
Drawing on best-practice insights from an in-depth review of the academic literature and interviews with nine experts, whose experience in leading virtual teams spanned telecommunications, technology, education, consumer packaged goods, banking and insurance, mining, transportation and professional service industries, these participants had faced challenges with virtual teaming and had great (and oft-surprising) solutions for leading effective teams.
10 best practice tips for leading virtual teams
A/Prof. Felps and Kane identified ten best practice insights for leaders of virtual teams, spanning from how to structure and plan effectively to the strategic value of team connection and over-communication.
Tip #1: Provide more structure, not less
Leaders need to be more structured and proactive than they would when managing face-to-face teams. Ways to form effective performance habits include:
- Initiating discussion of what an excellent outcome would look like.
- Scheduling who will do what by when.
- Integrating diverse efforts by being a ‘hub’ of activity.
Tip #2: Slow down to speed up
When communicating virtually, it is easier to misunderstand each other. This is especially true if you’re using communication technology that doesn’t allow people to see each other’s’ faces, like email. So, more effort needs to go into making sure everybody is on the same page. For example, on a conference call, the use of paraphrasing can help listeners check their understanding of what is being said (or not said).
Tip #3: Develop a role charter
Lack of accountability can be an issue for virtual teams, particularly when working cross-functionally. Leaders need to be vigilant about defining and communicating roles in virtual teams to prevent diffusion of responsibility. In addition, both team leaders and team members (particularly new members) are recommended to get to know the strengths and capabilities of their virtual team-mates. ‘Capability invisibility’ can lead to situations where individuals are given tasks that they are ill-equipped for or individuals’ useful skills are not fully utilised.
Tip #4: Relationships take extra time, effort, and money to build
Virtual teams often spend too little time engaging in the types of social conversations that happen naturally when teams are face-to-face. This can hinder the development of strong team relationships. Simple acts like sending a birthday card, personalising conversations, and recognising contributions can help increase visibility of individuals and build team cohesion. Regular video calls, particularly when done over meals, can also facilitate relationships. This can take the form of a virtual “coffee catch-up” or virtual team meal (such as ‘pizza days’, for example) at regular intervals.
Tip #5: Provide extra support to newbies
New people typically learn a lot about how to do their jobs and interact with others through “water cooler conversations”. But these conversations will not happen spontaneously in a virtual environment. To recreate the water cooler dynamic, organisations can create virtual hangout spots (using software like Sococo or Yammer). And leaders can create a “connection passport” for newbies, providing them with introductions and guidance about how to build relationships with various people they should know.
Tip #6: Unmute the distractions
The research also found that, for small team conference calls, encouraging team members not to mute calls fostered a more natural flow of conversation. Unmuting calls also allows for jokes and shared laughter which fosters team morale and cohesion. Some background noise (such as a barking dog) can be a reminder that people, not machines, are on the line. Of course, in big meetings (10 people or more), muting becomes necessary.
Tip #7: Use video technology whenever possible
Related to the above, was the concern of many interviewees that members who dial in on conference calls are not paying attention or do not feel comfortable to share their views. Video technology allows leaders and teammates to pick up on non-verbal cues such as when a member is trying to have input or agreeing/disagreeing with what is being said. Several interviewed experts recommend having a rule that everybody should share their videos.
Tip #8: Preserve and curate digital information
One of the virtues of doing things virtually is that the conversations and decisions are recordable and searchable. This can be accomplished through tools like Slack, which integrates different kinds of files (such as Google docs, gmail, github, dropbox, video recordings and others) into one easily searchable repository. And when someone makes a virtual presentation that contains useful information, be sure to record it, label/tag it, and post it in an easily accessible place.
Effective virtual teams use this to their advantage. Whenever they confront a problem they’ve seen before, or perhaps if something fails and they need a plan B, they do a quick search. As one interviewee said, “One of the great things about virtual teams is that you don’t get that feeling that you’re starting from scratch as much.”
Tip #9: Limit boundary permeability and buffer your team
While team members can be added more easily to virtual teams, than to conventional teams, a leader needs to strictly regulate this. New members must be socialised into a team to ensure that team cohesion and trust is maintained. Larger groups can also add to problems with accountability, again necessitating the need to regulate team size.
Tip #10: Use different technologies for generating options, taking the pulse, and communicating decisions
Leaders going online need to take the time to learn about the different communication technologies that are fit for different purposes. For brainstorming different options, the research suggests that it is best to use some sort of asynchronous software (such as Stormboard, Moxtra or Twoodo) that allows team members to come up with ideas independently. This is especially useful as a way to draw out ideas from introverts, rather than relying on the loudest people in the room. For quickly getting a sense of how people feel about options, use anonymous polling software (Yammer or ADoodle, for example). And communicate major decisions through technologies that convey emotional tone and that allow for questions and answers (such as videoconferencing).
Other benefits of virtual teams
Apart from dealing with the potential organisational fallout of coronavirus COVID-19, virtual teaming affords an opportunity to increase and leverage cultural and geographic diversity yet comes with a unique set of challenges. The challenges of virtual teaming can be overcome by any leader through concerted effort and discipline. Organisations that optimise the use of virtual teams may be well placed to reap the rewards of a diverse workplace including enhanced innovation and performance post-coronavirus and well into the future.
Will Felps is an Associate Professor in the School of Management at UNSW Business School. He teaches and conducts research on a wide range of organisational behaviour and management topics. Virginia Kane is a former MBA student at AGSM and also served as a strategy consultant – Entrepreneurship @ UNSW and is now a director at Nous Group.