Managing Virtual Teams & Leading in A Flexible Work Environment

Image: Managing Virtual Teams & Leading in A Flexible Work Environment

Today, working for an organization doesn’t necessarily mean heading into an office each day. Increasingly so, technology is being used to engage disperse and diverse groups of employees together. Experts from different geographies must come together to solve client challenges and achieve business goals. Leaders of virtual teams must possess the knowledge and tools to know where, when, and how to engage their employees and ensure high levels of performance.

What Makes a Strong Virtual Team?

What we know from the research – and have written about in our book Upgrade Now: 9 Advanced Leadership Skills - is that when working in a virtual environment, employees require a team that demonstrates:

  • Trust
  • Communication
  • Flexibility

These factors form the basis of a strong team and must be present if projects are going to be completed on time, on budget and exceeding client expectations.

In addition, support tools must be provided to virtual team members through:

  • Just-in-time training
  • Accessible and responsive leaders & team members
  • Appropriate and easy use of technology

While all of these elements are important regardless of if you are working virtually or on-site, they become more important when working across time zones, multiple locations and without face-to-face direction from leaders.

Keeping Virtual Teams Connected

Some leaders worry about being effective in a virtual environment, because if they can’t physically oversee what is happening, how will they know that work is being done? The reality is that by leveraging technology and focusing on the desired results, leaders can assess output, engagement and deliverables without micromanaging the outcomes. Using online collaboration tools (such as Yammer or Spark), video conferencing (such as WebEx) or online chat (such as Skype or Google Hangouts) is a great way to stay connected with people remotely. They create a sense of team connection and help minimize a sense of isolation for employees working independently, outside of a physical meeting space.  They also provide an opportunity to check in on the process of tasks and deliverables and create a forum for discussion and problem solving.  However, it’s important to not forget the power of face-to-face meetings.  At least once year, virtual teams should have the opportunity to get together to collaborate, social and building stronger connections.

Managing Performance with Virtual Teams

For many leaders, managing a virtual teams requires a new set of people leadership skills and can be intimidating. If an organization’s performance management process is set-up correctly, with SMART goals and clearly defined competencies, leaders don’t need to worry about if they can accurately assess output from their team members. As leaders make a cultural shift to focus on what is being done and not where or how it’s being done, they will become more comfortable with not seeing their team members every day in the office. They will be able to empower employees to achieve deliverable through greater independence and interdependence with their colleagues versus requiring the leader to be actively involved. In fact, teams in the office can in fact be less productive than virtual ones, since being pulled into additional meetings, distractions and social engagements can negatively impact short-term deliverables.

To encourage collaboration and help manage performance, leaders of virtual teams must make an effort to have frequent voice/visual communications. While it does take more effort to pick up the phone or Skype instead of just sending an email, the impact of tone and body language are significant in improving communication effectiveness.  Hearing someone’s voice, or seeing someone’s facial expressions, helps build trust and strengths the relationship since inevitably small talk becomes part of the conversation. This creates stronger personal connections and bonds leaders and colleagues together.

Taking a Generational Approach

Recognizing that generational differences can impact performance, leaders can improve team collaboration in a virtual environment by layering on a generational approach to three areas:

1. Performance management:

When leading a project, it’s important to think about how generational differences and strengths can impact the project.  At the concept phase, it’s important to identify who will be engaged in the project, what skills they possess and the role each team member will play.  By asking colleagues and employees how they want to contribute, team engagement can be improved because employees can self-select the role they play.  In addition, colleagues may share insights on skills and knowledge that we didn’t know existed on the team.

2. Communication:

Identify what tools the team will use to stay connected and how frequently communication will occur.  Each generation has preferred key messages, mediums and follow-up expectations.  Understanding what those needs are becomes increasingly important when working virtually, especially in multigenerational teams.

3. Leadership:

Leaders who manage virtual teams must spend more time being accessible, creating a fun and casual environment and providing timely feedback.  For example, if a Baby Boomer leader is managing Millennials they need to be aware of how they can provide coaching, mentoring and rewards just-in-time. Millennials expect on-going dialogue, which means that leader can use text or video messages to provide employees with short, quick messages with positive feedback and recognition. This approach will increase engagement levels and create a stronger sense of being connected to the team.

To learn more about leading virtual teams, attend my session Managing Virtual Teams & Leading in A Flexible Work Environment: The Where, When and How at the SHRM Annual Conference June 21st 7:00 AM – 08:15 AM, Convention Center: 206

Giselle Kovary

As president and co-founder of n-gen People Performance Inc., Giselle is dedicated to building strategies and programs that help clients target, motivate and engage employees in order to increase performance and productivity. She is a sought after resource to industry leaders, having worked with 18 of the top Fortune 500 companies across North America. Over 60,000 people globally have experienced an n-gen workshop or presentation. With close to 20 years of experience in learning and development, she has devoted more than 13 years to researching the impact that generational differences have on organizational performance.

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