It may sound counter-intuitive, but personal relationships are one of the most important components when leading a virtual team, in good times, but even more so in high-anxiety times like the ones we’re experiencing now. So, while it may be that virtual teams owe their existence to advances in technology, it is the people within the teams, from management down, and their ability to connect on a human level, that ultimately determines success.
When asked about their take on leading remote teams, this is what Elena Mosko (CEO and Founder of Globiana) and Steffen Henkel (COO and Co-founder of Globiana) stress — the success of a virtual team depends on interpersonal trust, and it requires a strong sense of individual agency. Without those components, it will struggle to be efficient and deliver results.
Globiana has operated as a fully virtual company from the start, so Elena and Steffen have seen first hand, through trials and errors, failures and successes, what works well and what doesn’t. And while all teams have their own dynamics, there are some basic measures to implement and general tendencies to be aware of that can greatly impact the success of a virtual team.
The Organizational Level
On an organizational level, there are a few essentials that need to be in place for a team to function well. Most importantly, Elena says, is a clear understanding across the team(s) of the chosen means of communication, and what is expected in terms of responsiveness. It’s up to the leader of the company to identify the office tools such as project management environment, file sharing, conferencing tools, and email, for example, and then sell “the environment” to the team. It’s up to the leader to set expectations for what reasonable response-times are with regards to emails and the protocol for sharing files, for example.
Getting buy-in from the team can be a challenge as everyone has their own preferences and abilities to adapt to new technology. Elena says: “You have to lead by example and be very disciplined and consistent in your own use. Also, as a leader, you have to take personal preferences and an individual’s technical limitations into account. Personal allowances, much like in a physical office where some like to stand and others sit, for example, are important, but can be harder to identify and implement because they are not right there in front of you. It comes down to communication and getting to know your employees.”
The Role of the Manager
The daily job of making sure people are thriving typically falls to the manager. Steffen points out that as a manager of a virtual team, in addition to the operational part, you must be prepared to spend a lot of time on relationship-building — between yourself and individual team members, as well as between individuals on the team. He says: “I would argue that the interpersonal aspects are more important in a virtual environment than in a physical office space, especially when it comes to leading a team in a crisis.”
That’s because, oftentimes in the middle of a crisis, we end up in a reactive mode and our personal extremes become more pronounced. Steffen says: “In simple terms, our worst instincts come out during high-stress times. We revert to a “flight-or-fight”-mode which tends to not be very productive or conducive to collaboration. That’s why it’s so important to have the basic piece of personal connection and communication in place — without that, a team can quickly unravel.”
Additional aspects to be aware of is the make-up of the team. Virtual teams often span across cultures, which can add a layer of complexity to managing. In multicultural virtual teams, the combination of personal preferences and cultural traits play a great role in how a team functions.
Elena has the same observations from the operational level. It’s a matter of building an environment that lets shared human experiences act as the glue for the team. She says: “It’s our job to make it easier for people across the company to connect, not only technologically and on a professional level but interpersonally as well. We have to be the facilitators — this can be something as simple as recognizing that there are several avid runners on the team, or parents, and then facilitating bonding around those shared experiences.
Both Elena and Steffen also note the importance of self-care and leading by example. A stressed-out manager is not going to be an efficient leader. This can be particularly hard to recognize in times of high stress when our tendency to “just push through” can get the best of us. Elena says, “just like you have to find ways to check-in with your employees and encourage them to recharge, you need to do the same for yourself. And whatever your preferred method is — going for a run, meditate, reading — you need to take the time to do it, or you won’t be able to lead well”.
Virtual meetings are one of the most relied on tools for communication on remote teams. And while they serve an integral purpose, it’s important to note that they are one tool among many and that they don’t typically work well unless you recognize their built-in limitations and then take action to mitigate these limitations.
Steffen gives a simple example of how when you are in a virtual meeting, you don’t have the luxury of visual clues and body language, so participants have a hard time reading each other. Also, personal traits and cultural tendencies are often amplified in a virtual setting — someone who is used to speaking a lot and sharing points of views freely will do so even more, while someone who comes from a more restrained culture where you wait to be asked a direct question, or who is comfortable with silent pauses, may stay quiet. The virtual meeting can become very lopsided very quickly without awareness and strategies for inclusion.
Steffen notes that there needs to be a deliberate approach to the virtual meeting setting in order to make it as inclusive and productive as possible. Basic measures to set clear expectations and ground-rules for how meetings are conducted include agreeing on things like:
- muting yourself when not speaking
- not eating on camera
- being on camera vs. having an avatar
Team-building measures for promoting trust and communication include:
- starting each meeting with a roundtable “check-in”, making sure everyone has a chance to speak
- having scheduled breaks if a meeting is longer than an hour (or some other predetermined time span)
- doing simple stress-relieving exercises together (more on those later)
The Key Bottleneck when Transitioning to Working Remotely
A recent study by Insead confirms much of what Elena and Steffen have observed and learned over the years managing all-virtual teams. The study shows that the key bottleneck to transitioning to working remotely is organizational, not technological. For example, 80 percent of the people surveyed agreed that their technology infrastructure was effective at supporting their remote work, while only about 50 percent agreed that their manager was supporting their remote working effectively, and 63 percent agreed that their organization laid out clear procedures and processes that were supportive of effective remote work.
In addition, the study shows that the tendency among new virtual teams is to default to synchronous communication tools like video and chat, while asynchronous tools that help with workflow coordination, like file sharing, for example, are less utilized. Previous studies by Insead show that asynchronous tools are more effective for collaboration as they don’t have the constraint of time attached to them. Again, this highlights the importance of having a well-defined structure in place for what tools are being used to collaborate and what the expectations are with regard to how those tools are being used.
Consider This when Managing a Remote Team
In this era of COVID-19, many companies have been forced into working virtually with little or no time to prepare or build protocols for best practices. Employing a deliberate approach to leading a remote team is important regardless of where you are on the virtual team experience-spectrum. Steffen recommends considering the following:
- Realize you don’t have physical insight into your team so take the time to get to know your team members — what are their cultural backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses, family situations, etc., and what does that mean for the individual, the team dynamic.
- Find a way to bridge personality/cultural differences within the team so that there is a communal awareness of each individual. This can be tricky as it’s not a matter of labeling people, but rather facilitating communication and building trust. Trust is ultimately how you get commitment within a team.
- Learn how to give feedback. This is especially important if you have a multicultural team. In German business culture, for example, saying nothing means you’re doing a good job, while someone from another culture might see this as a sign that something is amiss. Until you learn how to bridge those gaps, you will have a halting team.
- Let people know that there are simple physical measures you can take to relieve stress, such as massaging your ears, taking deep breaths, or even ripping pieces of paper. These exercises may sound silly, but they are known to be effective stress relievers. Doing these exercises as a team takes trust so it may not be the first thing you ask your team to do, and they should always be voluntary without any pressure attached. And of course, as the leader, you need to be willing to do them with the team.
When it comes to working through high-stress times, also keep in mind that shared experiences and perspectives around a common stressor can serve to promote team-building because they provide natural points of understanding within a group.
How Do you Know If What you Are Doing Is Working?
Evaluating progress in a newly established virtual work-environment can be difficult, but Elena points out that having informal discussions regarding what the high points have been so far, what has brought you closer, what is working — is it your tactical approach, how you’ve buckled down, etc. — can be important and can also serve as a tool to build trust and promote communication. Taking action based on what you find out in these kinds of talks will strengthen team bonds and can be used to build for the future.
Looking to do a more formal evaluation of what went right and wrong during a time of crisis is something that will likely have to wait until there is a greater time-perspective.
What about “Company Culture” in a Virtual Environment?
“Company culture” is a popular term to use both for attracting talent, as well as when promoting externally. But in a virtual environment, company culture doesn’t necessarily translate as it would in a physical environment. Elena says: “I don’t know that you can expect to have a group of people within a remote team have the same view of what the company culture is. What is important is that they feel supported by the leadership, that there are interpersonal relationships and a firm sense of what the structure is that they are operating within. That’s how you build trust within a team and when you have that, not only will you see good results, you also end up seeing alignment in how you are reflected externally, with employees, clients and networks alike.”
By: Felicia Shermis
Sources: Insead Study