The Virtual Path Is More Difficult
Anyone knows that walking a greenway is very different than hiking a mountain trail. It takes a more intentional focus to walk the trail because the footing is not as sure and the walk is more strenuous. I look at leading virtual teams in the same way. With remote jobs increasing 52% over the past year (as noted by Flexjobs 2017), leaders continue to manage these remote workers as if they were managing a co-located team. This is where the problem lies because managing virtual teams is a more strenuous activity and the global footing is definitely not as sure.
Leaders need to understand what's different about leading a virtual team and make the appropriate changes to their leadership capability. When we surveyed leaders at a recent Webinar, 53% said that they had NOT received any training on working on or leading a remote or virtual team. Understanding that the respondents were skewed in that they signed up to learn about virtual teams, just think about those that never would seek out such a learning opportunity. If more than half of leaders that seek out learning haven't received training on leading and working in a virtual environment, that number probably skyrockets to 80% when all leaders are taken into account.
Working remotely is not the issue. Teaching leaders to manage it is! With the knowledge that leading remote workers on a virtual team is a different and more difficult terrain, a few notable companies have raised the white flag and stated that "teams need to be together". As the technology that allows us to communicate and collaborate like never before in our lives continues to increase, companies are shifting back to well-worn old practices. When I tell the people that I coach that I'm going to teach them a new communication model, I tell them it will cause them some discomfort and they will experience dissonance and want to go back to what they used to do. I ask them at that choice moment to push forward and to stay with the mental discomfort in order to experience higher gains. Companies with remote workers and virtual teams are at that same moment of choice today.
Continue To Look Forward
Remote and virtual teams have created a better work and family life for millions of workers. In addition, having remote workers has allowed employers to get the best and brightest minds for the position without regard for the applicant's location. It is obvious that if a company only chooses applicants that live or choose to locate to a specific geographic location, then they have effectively said they don't want the best in the world, just the best who choose to live here. While many countries are currently going through some nationalistic introspection, it's seems undeniable that the world is becoming increasingly more global and we'd better prepare for this inevitability.
All companies should provide leaders and workers learning opportunities on how to best communicate, collaborate and lead in the virtual workplace. Teams need to understand how to communicate when there is no break room or hallway to have informal conversations, collaborations or simple updates. While I mentioned earlier that technology has provided an incredible platform to make this happen, few have been able to add the “secret sauce” that makes communication and collaboration work. That secret sauce is injecting a full dose of humanity into the process. I believe that some leaders are waiving the white flag to do just this. Add humanity back to their teams. Let's not move backward but forward. Teach our workers how to work in the new age.
3 Fixes for Communicating and Collaborating in the Virtual Workplace
1. Be intentional about all communication. I mentioned intentionality earlier in the article because it is the foundation of a virtual team. Nothing happens by accident in virtual. You've got to make it happen. You can't pop into their office or look over their cube wall. You won't see them in the break room getting coffee. You must create these moments with planned spontaneity. Both leaders and virtual teammates should set time aside on their calendar EVERY DAY to create a spontaneous moment with a teammate. This is what brings humanity into the process.
2. Be the change. Whether you are a leader or a team member, it is critical for you to model every aspect of virtual communication. As a leader, you can’t tell your team to change the way they communicate and you simply continue to communicate in the old style. As a worker, you can't expect to be a good virtual communicator if you don't share your thoughts virtually and make regular formal and informal connections with your leader and teammates. To shrink the distance, you need a virtual line of sight across the whole team. That comes from both regular planned and unplanned touch points from all on the team in all directions.
3. Look for the good in others on the team. Seek to understand everyone on the team through both formal and informal interactions. Know their strengths and areas of competency. Connect with teammates regularly via IM, chat, email, video platform and phone. Envision your teammates as a co-located team. Know who you can send an IM to for some advice, know who you can pick up the phone and chat with, and know who will jump on a virtual platform call for an informal meeting. Make a habit of connecting with someone on the team every day.
You'll notice that these fixes are not focused on technology, but on the human behaviors that we can create using technology. Leaders and teams should look at how they work each day and see what they are doing each day that addresses shrinking the virtual distance on their remote team. Remember, the secret sauce is adding your humanity into every connection that you make on the team.