• Shaiklal Basha, Lead Consultant, TranscendOrg

Managing Virtual Team

Many organizations have made the shift to a virtual workplace where employees work remotely, at least part of the time. However, few people give much thought to the demands of a virtual workplace, aside from ensuring that they have the right technology. They fail to recognize the need to ensure that their managers have the appropriate skills to lead and collaborate from a distance. It is important for a manager to understand how a virtual manager’s role differs from that of a regular manager, who operates in close proximity to his or her team.


When a new virtual team is created, it typically begins as nothing more than a collection of individuals. The manager’s role from the start is to merge these individuals into a coherent and well-integrated work unit that provides the capability for the team to self-manage itself. To achieve this, managers must ensure proper orientation of the team, which includes motivational factors like promoting a common goal, creating a positive affect and shaping perceptions. A good team orientation represents the bond that ties members to each other and to the team’s mission.


Role of Managers in a Virtual Team

There are three roles a virtual manager needs to play. The first is that of a team liaison who continually scans and interprets team events and the overall environment. The second role is of a direction setter who ensures that all actions have a specified purpose that is in line with the team’s overall goals. Finally, managers must also become operational coordinators. This includes identifying and developing the right resources to tackle problems or tasks. It also includes motivating and empowering employees to encourage greater effort towards tasks and, therefore, minimizing process losses. One could argue that these roles are not very different from traditional ones, but each of these must be carried out in virtual team settings and they must be done with limited communication.


Unique Challenges of Virtual Teams

Understanding the challenges or differences in virtual teams, as compared with traditional teams, is the key to better understanding what a virtual manager should look like and what knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) are required to be effective. The most obvious difference is that virtual environments are stripped of much of the information richness available to teams in face-to-face settings. Without access to familiar face-to-face methods, teams are left with a variety of technological replacements, from blogs, wikis and email to more advanced tools like video conferences. The increased distance between team members gives rise to a host of new issues.


There are 5 main disadvantages of a virtual team:

  • Lack of physical interaction,

  • Loss of face to face synergies,

  • Lack of trust,

  • Greater concern with predictability and reliability, and

  • Lack of social interaction.

Managerial Skills in Managing Virtual teams

Managers need to be more deliberate, intentional, and purposeful. Here are a few skills for leading in a virtual environment:


Communication and Interpersonal Skills

Managers who can communicate clearly and effectively will build strong relationships with virtual team members, which sets the foundation for almost everything else. These skills are the foundation for managing conflict, influencing others, and coaching and motivating them. Strong communication skills means being able to:

  • Use appropriate technology to stay connected with team members

  • Conduct effective virtual meetings

  • Use active listening to enhance understanding from a distance

  • Connect and build relationship and trust

Collaboration

It can be difficult enough to work with others when all are under the same roof. Adding distance and different time zones to the equation can further complicate matters. Managers need to overcome these challenges and foster strong collaboration within their teams. They must recognize barriers, such as differences among cultures and time zones, and work enthusiastically to overcome them.


Build trust

Learning how to build, strengthen and protect relationships of trust is the most essential skill to master. In a virtual environment, trust is pre-eminent. As an old saying goes: “When the cat’s away, the mice will play.” Managers need to extend trust to colleagues in order to receive trust. Trusted managers know that trust begets trust and it is the glue that holds a team together.


Clarify tasks and processes, not just goals and roles

Managers need to align their team regarding goals, roles, and responsibilities. With virtual teams, however, coordination is inherently more of a challenge because people are not co-located. Hence, it is important to focus more on the details of the task design and the processes that will be used to complete them. Simplify work to the greatest extent possible, ideally so that tasks are assigned to sub-groups of two or three team members. Make sure there is clarity about the work process, with specifics about who does what and when. Then periodically do “after-action reviews” to evaluate how things are going and identify process adjustments and training needs.


Establish guidelines for working remotely

Create a structure and establish guidelines to set everyone up for success. These may include expected work hours, dress, appropriate ways to communicate with external customers and stakeholders, the use of company equipment as well as security and privacy guidelines.


Managing Conflict

Spatial distance and a lack of visual cues creates a potential for misunderstanding among managers and their virtual teams. It may be easier to ignore conflict when managers can’t see it right in front of them, but unresolved issues hinder the team’s productivity and damage morale. Over time, ongoing conflict may cause the team to disintegrate. Effective managers understand why conflicts occur and tackle it head-on by using an approach that is most appropriate for a given situation.


Managing Accountability Remotely

Managers must hold employees accountable and keep projects moving forward even when they do not see their teams every day. In a virtual environment, it can be easier for tasks to fall through the cracks or get pushed to the bottom of the priority list. Managers must set expectations for individual team members, establish realistic deadlines and follow up with team members at key milestones.


Appreciative and Celebrate Wins

Lack of appreciation is the number one reason associates leave companies. A global survey conducted by Octanner found that 79% of employees who quit their jobs, cite a lack of appreciation as the key reason for leaving. Associates don’t leave companies, they leave bosses. Showing appreciation must extend to suppliers and customers, too.


While working remotely, people often forget to celebrate the team’s wins, achievements, and successes. They may not be able to physically shake hands; however, there are other ways to celebrate wins and successes. Associates and customers have long memories. Celebrate the wins and demonstrate commitment to them.


Practice Empathy

Managers must understand, empathize and be patient with associates, suppliers, and customers. They must constantly strive to interpret, place themselves in another’s shoes and suspend judgment.


Managers should consider that everyone has a different set-up at home; hence, a different work environment. Many are working with children, partners and pets. For some, their private lives are exposed. There is no distinct line between work and private life. Managers should be sensitive to the reality that colleagues may feel isolated, vulnerable or out of sorts when working remotely and in many cases have distractions.


Advantages of Virtual Teams

Virtual teams have certain inherent advantages, which if leveraged well can serve to make them even more effective than teams where members can physically interact. Managers would do well to keep the same in mind and make full use of it. Some of the advantages of virtual teams are given below.


Integration of Expertise from across Geographies

Team members can be incorporated from across the globe thus ensuring that the team has the right expertise. The constraints of co-located individuals with inherent logistic issues can be obviated, as technology obviates the necessity for team members to be together.


Diversity of Knowledge

Virtual teams are ideal for the employment of gig employees and temp staff who work only part time, but handle multiple assignments simultaneously, thus bringing in a huge diversity of experience and knowledge. This can add a lot of value to the competency of a team and, in turn, lead to much better work outcomes.


Focussed task related collaboration

Most of the interactions in a virtual team will be related to the tasks at hand. Members generally do not indulge in frivolous banter. Therefore, collaboration is very focussed and related to the work objective. This becomes quality time and can lead to results being achieved in a shorter time frame.


Enhanced value through optimized costs

The cost of work space and related expenditures such as electricity, food and travel is vastly reduced or practically non-existent as team members are remotely connected from their homes. This can reduce fixed costs which ultimately enhances output value. Organizations are realizing the same and will, in all likelihood, make it the new working norm.


Finally, if you are inheriting a team, take the time to understand how your predecessor led it. It is essential that a newly appointed manager does this, whether the teams are virtual or not. Because, as Confucius put it, you must “study the past if you would define the future.” It’s even more important when you inherit a virtual team, because the structures and processes that are used to manage communication and coordinate work have an inordinate impact on the team performance.

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