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How to effectively lead virtual teams

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One of my clients once had a cardboard cutout of himself made to “sit” with his team. Why on Earth would he do this? Because he was the leader of a dispersed team — he was based in the US and his team was half a world away in Singapore. If he couldn’t physically be with his team, he wanted a tangible reminder that he was there, at least in spirit.

Virtual, or as I prefer, “dispersed” teams are almost more common than not these days. According to the 2013 Global Workplace Analytics Survey, between 2005 and 2013, the number of employees who worked virtually grew by 80%. There are plenty of reasons for this rapid growth: extended market opportunity; increased efficiency, productivity, innovation and synergy; access to a wider pool of talent; better effort, performance gains and job satisfaction; and cost savings.

But for all the positives, there are a lot negatives that come with not sharing a physical space with your team and colleagues. Participants in a 2012 Society for Human Resource Management survey cited time differences, distribution of work, differences in cultural norms, and technology as barriers to success to these types of teams. The truth is, no one has truly figured out how to smoothly lead a dispersed team, but we’re getting closer.

Here are five key strategies for effectively managing a dispersed or virtual team:

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Over-communicate about communication. Time zones. Dependence on technology. Accountability. Miscommunication. Cultural differences. These are all challenges to virtual communication. It can be tough enough communicating with someone right in front of you, let alone miles away. For this reason, nailing down when, where and how you communicate with your team is key. Create a document that lays out the time, communication mode, and standards for your virtual meetings. For instance, “participants should be in a quiet place with little distractions, they should speak slowly and clearly, and they should aim to use video conference whenever possible.” You should also specify what communicate modes, such as e-mail or video chat, will be used for which circumstances along with desired response times and criteria for prioritizing issues.

Define roles. In a virtual or dispersed team, you can’t yell down the hall to see if your colleague is handling the report or spontaneously huddle in an office to troubleshoot. That’s why the team leader needs to clearly define who does what and when. Focus on the details of tasks and processes used to complete them. To ensure accountability, keep a document that communicates everyone’s roles so there’s no confusion or diffusion of responsibility. This document will also protect trust by ensuring people how to operate as a team.

Build trust. There’s no water cooler in virtual or dispersed teams, so you need to create one. The office chitchat may not be accomplishing a specific organizational task but it’s doing something perhaps just as important — it’s building trust within your team. Approximately half of human resources professionals in the 2012 survey said that building trust is an obstacle that prevents them from being successful.

Therefore, with dispersed or virtual teams, it’s critical to spend extra time focusing on this effort. Have exercises where people disclose about their personal lives. For example, one of my clients has their team share a personal and professional win when they start calls to ensure they get to know each other more deeply. Other organizations are leveraging social media so team members can feel more connected. And, be sure to avoid these enemies of trust — inconsistent messages and standards, lack of clarity, limited feedback and favoring some colleagues over others.

Don’t forget the face-to-face and one-on-one. Research has shown that face-to-face conversations are 10 times more effective than phone, and phone conversations 10 times more effective than e-mail. Thus, it’s important to hold for face-to-face meetings with your team whenever possible, especially early on. Ideally in this meeting, you would be able to get to know each other personally and professionally, and develop shared visions, goals, and guidelines for how the team will operate. Then, you’d meet at least once a year. The leader should also check in, one-on-one, with individual team members on a regular basis. These interactions are incredibly powerful for taking the temperature of the team as well as keeping individuals connected to the overarching goals.

Respect cultural differences. The ways we do and view things vary based on our backgrounds and culture. For example, in some cultures, time can’t be controlled, thus deadlines are viewed as flexible. In cultures where time is seen as controllable, deadlines are the law and schedules are rigid. When leading virtual or dispersed teams, it’s imperative to acknowledge these differences at the start and educate team members about cultural nuances to help minimize potential clashes and miscommunication.

The positives of leading remote employees far outweigh the negatives. By employing these strategies, there will be far fewer bumps along the road.

Melissa Lamson is president and CEO of Lamson Consulting, where she uses her decades of global expertise to help companies and business leaders cultivate a successful global mindset, bridge cultures, and achieve real results.

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