If you are reading this, you intimately know the daily challenges you face leading a virtual team. In my experience, it is difficult enough managing a team that you lock eyes on every day. With virtual team management, you not only need foundational management skills, but you have to artfully customize those skills to bridge the distance between you and the team and team members with each other.
In his book "Leadership and The Organizational Climate", Robert Stringer states that 50% of the climate or working environment on a team emanates from you as the leader. What you do sets the tone. How you communicate sets the tone. How you use the tools sets the tone. Forging team outcomes from individuals that work remotely with flexible schedules and time zone differences requires blending essential virtual leadership skills and foundational management skills. It's heavy lifting that requires vigilance and an intentionality to your daily actions.
In the virtual work environment, my team and other teams have found that there may be extended periods of time where there is no interaction between teammates. This can cause teammates to feel disconnected from each other and the goal. Strong remote leaders make sure their virtual teams have the right people, the right direction and the right tools to be successful. Here are five questions that will help you assess your remote leadership.
1. Do you have the right people on the team?
The only question about your work in a virtual organization is did you do it or not. All the intangibles that exist in the co-located work place have been stripped away. You can't get away with that brilliant smile or with puppy dog eyes as you pass in the hallway. Virtual work requires someone who is self-driven, organized and focused. In the virtual workplace, because of flexible schedules and time zone differences, teammates must consider their teammates committed hours and time frames into their own time constraints as they work together to accomplish a goal. If Mike knows that his teammate in a different time zone has limited availability before the deadline, Mike has to accommodate that by making sure that he provides the information to his teammate in enough time for his teammate to review.
2. Can team members state clearly your expectations and how they connect to the broader organization?
This is the ultimate test for a remote workforce. Do the troops know why they are doing what they do? In our evoke virtual survey of remote leaders, 45% said that 3 out of 4 team members understood the organizations objectives. That's not bad. What was surprising was that 44% said that 2 out of 4 couldn't tie those objectives to their daily activities. Again, that is half of the people on the team who don't know how the quality of what they do impacts the company. These same leaders said that communicating and driving a vision into the organization was the second most important responsibility for them behind only #1 - Building Trust. Good leadership is all about communicating why and what. Knowing the "why" on a virtual team is critical. Knowing the why connects far flung individuals and enables them to share a vision and know how they are all interconnected for a common goal.
3. Does your team actively utilize a shared repository for all documents?
Collaboration between teammates requires working on the same document as well as having access to multiple documents. It's absolutely critical that each team member has access to a secure portal where they can access, edit and save content. Your team needs an agreement for how this shared repository will be used so that the repository is organized and individuals know how to properly save new documents and archive old documents. My company uses Dropbox and Box. Google Derive and SharePoint are examples of other shared repositories. While you may have answered yes to this question, do some due diligence to make sure that the team is happy with the way the repository is being used. If not managed properly, this could be a pressure point for all.
4. Does your team communicate effectively using an instant messaging tool?
The ability to connect with teammates, when they are available, is key to successfully collaborating. Our team uses Skype on a daily basis and we also utilize our virtual conference rooms in Adobe Connect and WebEx. Getting some face to face time via one of our virtual platforms is key to building that collaboration relationship. I'm partial to applications that I can access on my phone, laptop or desktop. Any written conversations are saved and can be referred to later. If you can't reach your teammates, you can easily record and send a short video message. I only use the video message when I have something to say that needs context and more explanation than I would put in an email.
5. Does your team successfully use a task or project management system?
What projects are out there? Who needs to do what and by when? On an interconnected team, as I mentioned earlier, Mike's teammate in a different region is dependent on Mike. A task or project management system that is visible to all enables the team to anticipate possible bottlenecks in the work flow.
These five questions are merely a starting place as you look to be a strong leader of your virtual team. Are you using instant messaging, the project management tool and the shared repository in a way that is consistent with how you would like the team to use these tools? Make sure you are setting the tone.
Please let me know if you have other questions that help you evaluate your team.