Leading Virtual Teams

Building and sustaining successful virtual working relationships.

By Beth O’Neill, Senior Consultant, Interaction Associates

Does the following scenario sound familiar? Rich is leading a Product Development team with members in Salt Lake City, New York, Zurich, and Hong Kong. To help focus the team and set goals, he convenes an online Web meeting. Most team members are joining via the Web and on the phone—except for Rich and three colleagues, who are in the same room in the New York office.

As Rich proceeds through his PowerPoint deck, Sandra in Salt Lake City begins sending e-mails to her assistant on an urgent matter. Lee in Hong Kong wants to get Rich’s attention to ask a question, but gives up when Rich moves to another topic. Julia (sitting next to Rich in New York) whispers a witty comment, causing Werner in Zurich to wonder why everyone in New York suddenly burst out laughing.

By the end of the meeting, no one is sure what decisions have been made, or who is making them—and the online participants feel left out, to say the least.

This scenario points to a growing fact of life in business today: Leading virtual teams presents tough challenges, even with all the technological innovations available. The latest tools—many of which are amazing—instantly can connect people across the globe, but dispersed teams still face a huge hurdle to success: building and sustaining effective working relationships.

The pressures on team leaders are enormous—and the factors affecting team effectiveness are multiplying left and right. Time zones; different work processes; and competing perspectives, outlooks, and beliefs all get in the way. Team members are expected to share information, examine problems or opportunities, make decisions, and perhaps most challenging, extend the benefit of the doubt, having never laid eyes on one another. Leaders need to bridge the gaps fast and effectively by fostering an atmosphere that encourages strong relationships

People have basic needs when they work collaboratively—whether it’s across the room or across the miles. In his landmark study, theorist and researcher Will Schutz identified three basic needs of team members, including:

  • An open environment for sharing information and opinions
  • A work process that makes them feel included
  • An atmosphere that allows them to have some control by influencing their colleagues

And where do those needs play out most commonly? In meetings—the tried-and-true means for teams to make progress and drive results. Team leaders are wise to explore how best to set the right conditions for success and strong results in all kinds of meetings. Team performance is at stake, at minimum, but so is the opportunity for a positive ripple effect throughout an organization: higher levels of productivity, employee involvement, and satisfaction.

How best to improve working relationships when leading virtual teams? Here are five priorities to pursue now:

  1. Make it two-way. In other words, make meetings interactive. People have no visual cues in a virtual setting, so they don’t know when it is their turn to speak. Meeting leaders may say: “What do you all think?” as a way of getting input. But online, that technique doesn’t work. How to meet everyone’s needs for both inclusion and control? At critical junctures in the meeting—when an agreement is being reached or when input is required—go around the virtual room and call everyone by name, asking if they agree or have an idea to share. This technique may seem time consuming, but people report a significant increase in feelings of inclusion and control when the meeting leader checks with each by name. It builds rapport and establishes trust. It also reduces the incidence of virtual participants multitasking if they know they will be called on periodically to give input.
  2. Use a remote control. Your virtual collaboration may involve working with participants who are all gathered in a distant meeting room. Appoint a facilitator in the remote location. This remote facilitator performs common facilitation functions and acts as the eyes and ears of the meeting leader in the far-flung location. During Q&A, for instance, the remote facilitator can manage the process of calling on the team members in his room with questions and ensuring their questions are answered.
  3. Give a play-by-play. Communicate verbally what you ordinarily would convey via body language. If you have doubt, or a question, express it in words. When some people are meeting in person and others are online, you need to narrate what’s happening. For instance, “We’re waiting a moment while Mimi gets out the notes.” Or “Everyone in Kuala Lumpur seems to agree we should proceed. Let’s check with San Jose.” These verbal descriptions of activity make the meeting more “real” to virtual participants, and increase their feelings of inclusion and openness. It is also helpful to review progress and summarize discussions as you go. Check-ins help keep people focused on the task at hand. Face to face, this would be overkill, but virtually, it’s just enough.
  4. Give the PowerPoint a rest. Don’t just “present.” An endless slide deck will encourage multitasking and discourage participation. Design the meeting agenda with an emphasis on participation. Work together on a shared document, and make changes to it collectively in real time. Create brainstormed lists virtually in chat or on a whiteboard. Take polls. These activities help team members feel included and enhance their ability to feel in control.
  5. Externalize your thinking. People in faraway offices don’t have the contextual knowledge your local team has. Be clear about how a decision is being made, who’s involved, and your rationale behind the decision. This helps with feelings of inclusion and openness. It also serves to help groups work cross-functionally more effectively because they more clearly understand the big picture. 

With the rush of new technologies and a more global workforce at many companies, we are headed for more and more virtual work—which means more virtual meetings and remote collaboration challenges. Keeping your relationship skills honed and team member needs top of mind will help make your virtual meetings successful and productive.

Beth O’Neill is a senior consultant specializing in leading virtual teams at Interaction Associates, a 40-year old firm that helps clients build collaborative leadership capabilities on a global scale.

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