It's a double whammy. A team working virtually is difficult enough to manage. There are workers in different geographic locations whom you rarely see but collectively hold your corporate life in their hands. Now, many leaders are faced with the added complexity of having members of their teams work with dotted line responsibilities to other leaders in the organization (Matrixed Teams). This can be confusing for team members, ultimately creating questions of loyalty for the worker, contradictions in assignment priorities, and utilization issues. No matter what anyone tells you, no matter what fancy equations they use, a person can only be utilized 100%. Expecting to get more than 100% from one person is a set-up for failure.
Leaders need to learn how to influence without having direct control over all of their resources. Their ability to concisely communicate and collaborate within their team and across the broader organization is key. When working with many virtual teams that had dotted line responsibilities, we took note of best practices that created successes for the best leaders. Here are six strategies that virtual team leaders used when their teams had involvement on other teams.
1. Communicate a vision that serves as a foundation for decisions. You aren't always going to be around when a decision has to be made. Virtual workers, as they allocate their time between projects, make large and small decisions each and every day that impacts their deliverables. You've got to empower them to make certain decisions. A strong vision serves as a beacon to guide their decision process. Many years ago, the CEO of Southwest Airlines said that their vision was to be know as the low cost airline. The question would be asked, "Would a adding meals allow them to remain a low cost airline?” The answer was no. That vision stood as the litmus test for all proposed services.
2. Build a team accountability map that includes direct and dotted line team members. Make it explicit to the team who is responsible for what and who is engaged with other teams. This transparency lets all teammates know what they are responsible for and sets an expectation level for someones availability.
3. Engage in on-going dialogue with “dotted-line” organizations. They can’t read your mind. It's incumbent for all leaders to reach out and open a dialog with all the organizations that have dotted lines to their team. It's always good to have an understanding with leaders that are "reaching into your cookie jar".
4. Outline deliverables and check timeline assumptions with your team. Again, transparency is the key. No assumptions... ever. Make sure everyone is aware of and has agreed to deliverables and timelines. Don't put the onus on your employee to make this decision in the heat of the moment.
5. Include an “Obstacles and Correction” section in all meetings. Don't put the pressure on your team to bring up issues. Create a context that this section of the meeting is not a gripe session, but an opportunity to remove obstacles to create success.
6. Revisit team purpose and shared goals at regular intervals. Absence does not make the heart grow fonder and long distance relationships are difficult. These adages hold true for virtual teams. Regular touches keep things in focus.
The bottom line is that transparency and intentional communication is paramount to empowering your team as they work independently and interdependently toward a common goal.