5 Tips for Leading your Virtual Team
By Crystal Wilson
We’ve been leading our team virtually since waaay before it was cool (*read* before Covid-19 forced most workplaces to try it out under immense pressure with little to no warning…) and we’ve learned some things along the way. Here are 5 tips for effectively leading a virtual team:
1. Differentiate Leadership from Management
These two can seem like the same thing, but trust us, they are not. While there is almost certainly a need for more management at the onset of a virtual/remote teamwork environment, good leadership will minimize the intensity and duration of that need. It helps individuals and teams move ahead and allows them to see a positive outcome, rather than management which says “here is how you do this, this is when it needs done by, etc”. Too much of the latter can actually cause a drop in morale with an established team. One of the great things about leadership is that it only requires influence, while management requires a level of authority - members of your team who are new or who have not reached management positions may be able to step in as leaders if they have achieved a level of influence within the group. Hooray for shared leadership!
2. Increase Connection Points
Sorry if this seems like I’m pointing out the obvious, but here goes - working virtually means you won’t be in the same space. That actually carries a lot of impact over how a team functions. So much of our communication is non-verbal, and much of our information about what’s happening comes from observation and instinct. So much of the way a company displays and reinforces its culture is done through specific uses of space. Removing the shared physical space removes a lot of the connection points. So you have to intentionally create and use new ones. Morning huddles, one:one calls, celebrations, acknowledgements, information sharing, status reports, will likely all need to be booked into the workweek in order to maintain the same level of connection that existed in-office. It is a high maintenance endeavour and requires a strong leader with a level of influence to pull it off.
3. Offer a range of communication methods and tools
As you have likely already learned, the people you are leading prefer and are more successful in some forms of communication more than others. So it will be important, as you lead them in this new virtual reality (ha! See what I did there?) it will be important to offer them various ways to interact, communicate, maintain relationships, etc. We use a mix of Slack, Email, Phone, and Zoom as primary platforms for communication, and we apply different options within some of those. For example, we have Slack channels specifically for sharing awesome things that happen, getting to know one another personally, instigating challenges, service-specific comms, and we rely heavily on memes and emojis to encourage those who aren’t as likely to write up a message but are comfortable with finding a relevant visual to share.
4. Set the tone
Whether you’ve been temporarily forced into the work-from-home word, or you are choosing to move forward in this way for your business, it is crucial that you and any other identified leaders in the company understand the tone that you want to exist for your team. If you want to see a productive, push through, can-do virtual team emerge, you have to be observably productive, push-through, and have a can-do attitude. If you want a laid back, we’ll do what we can for now and get back to the grind later vibe for right now, you have to display that. If you are telling your team that they are to maintain their standard working hours, hit pre-crisis targets, etc… then you, as an effective leader, had best be doing the same right now. If you tell your team that they should approach this new way of working with a relaxed attitude, and just do what they can, you can’t be (virtually) running around like a chicken with its head cut off for all the world to see. As the leader, you set the tone so that they can meet it. This one is kind of a cheater tip because it is also true in-office, but very easy to neglect when working remotely.
5. Say what you mean and mean what you say
I cannot stress the importance of this one enough. A team must be able to count on its leader to be clear and reliable. The benefits of working in person, include having those you lead to read your energy, your facial expression, your body language, and your overall mood, and you get to use those same physical/energetic cues as well. These don’t translate well into a virtual environment for obvious reasons, but they are really helpful tools to use in determining whether you and others are understanding, being understood, holding a bias, feeling confident or ill-equipped, frustrated, stretched too thin, etc. So to counteract this loss, you are going to have to be very careful in how you communicate. Don’t assume someone will infer your intention, confirm that they understood your direction, etc. Make absolutely certain that you are both on the same page before closing a conversation. If you have a preference for something to be done one way or another, share it. If you give feedback (*bonus tip - do this more often than ever now), specify whether it serves as a “must change” or just an alternate perspective to consider with no expectation of any changes. When this tip combines with Tip 4, you have the recipe for a team full of people who communicate clearly, don’t waste time on assumptions, and follow through on commitments. And that is a win no matter where your office is located.
It is incredible the benefit that in-person nuances have, but with careful planning, and intentional behaviour, your leadership in a virtual setting can be incredibly effective and help your team adapt and thrive. Keeping in mind the principle we wrote about a few weeks back, the “Emotional Bank Account”, the idea at the root of all these tips is to spend a lot of time making sure you are making well-received deposits. Withdrawals can pack a harder punch in a virtual setting, so it’s important to keep those accounts topped up. Showing up as an exceptional leader for your virtual team is a sure-fire way to help that happen.