We have a perception problem.  It seems like managing and working on a virtual team should be getting easier. With all the great technical solutions for connecting, sharing documents, collaborating visually online, we’ve got what we need to address the key challenges to move projects, plans, and innovation to success.  Managing virtual teams is such a routine activity now that we often hear leaders say, “I’ll just do what I’ve always done well as a manager and I’ll get the same results.”  The question we need to answer - is this working and are we getting the results we expect?

The simple answer is NO. As leaders, we are really fooling ourselves.  RW3* recently published some enlightening data after talking to 1,300 people in 80 countries who were either leading or working on virtual teams.  When asked about the preparedness of team leaders to manage a global virtual team, 58% of respondents said their leaders weren’t prepared to lead! When leaders were asked to rate themselves, 96% of them said they were effective or highly effective. Talk about a disconnect.

So what are the big risks of ignoring this disconnect? We are leaving our virtual teams and leaders not only under-prepared to succeed, but evidence shows that many teams just aren’t getting results.

How do you start to bridge this gap and fix the problem? Based on our work with clients in our managing virtual teams program, here are the top 5 issues you should start addressing as a leader:

1. Don’t assume anything
As the leader of a global team, you are responsible for making sure everyone not only knows their specific deliverables, but also knows how they fit into the plan. In the RW3 study, only 28% of teams reported any guidelines for accountability and performance improvements. Make sure you communicate the “Why?” and the “What?” every chance you get. Why is this an important program now to the organization? What do we need to do to accomplish our goals? Define what high performance looks like and how it will be measured. Coach your local managers and leaders to communicate this information regularly to their local teams. Don’t assume they know it or even know how to communicate the message. Coach them and demonstrate by example.

2. Manage time zone differences
You have to share the load and plan for the differences. The guys in Bangalore can’t be expected to have meetings at 1:30 am just to make it convenient every time for Los Angeles and London. You have to share the load. Your team meetings are crucial. Addressing issues and making decisions quickly is a key to productivity. If you are meeting in the dead of night, don’t jam the agenda full. Break it up into smaller chunks. Review, plan, and decide what can be accomplished when neurons are still firing!
3. Ensure every meeting has an outcome
Every time I say this, people look shocked. “Of course we have an outcome in mind!” NO YOU DON’T. See above where I recommend not packing the agenda.  Define the outcome and how it connects to the whole project and put that in the meeting invite. START the meeting by reviewing the expected outcome. Remember to define the “Why?” every time. Focus on the result. Only invite the people who are critical to the decision-making process and don’t forget that everyone participants. No hiding in the “virtual” corners or not contributing. Everyone gets engaged.

4. Coach local leadership to reach out
If you lead a multi-national team, assess whether your local leaders have the skills needed to manage a local team and align with other critical virtual team leaders.  Are they comfortable with dotted line responsibilities to other teams? Are they clear on their shared accountabilities? Virtual teams have made the concept of optimizing matrix teams even more critical. You need to coach them and agree on what their accountability is to the whole team and their local staff.  

5. Build a Communication Agreement
You have goals you need to meet. Miscommunication and lag in response results in missed deadlines and more cycles to decisions. The worst outcome? Conflict and loss of team trust. Make agreements on the ways in which you will communicate not only in documents and writing, but during meetings, collaboration, and even one-on-ones. What’s appropriate for the whole group? What should be done in email, on the phone or in your virtual meeting environment? What is the agreed on response time for requests that cross one or more time zones? (That goes for countries with multiple time zones also.)

One last issue that was highlighted in the research report: You need to actively educate your global team about the impact that cultural diversity has on delivering business outcomes. One quickly implemented approach we recommend is to have each region share key characteristics about communication, meeting etiquette, and local customers or holidays with the group. This is not suggested as a replacement for cultural diversity training. Do this as you are developing communication and other agreements between teams. These sessions could be recorded or part of specific live virtual team meetings.

Bottom line? Global teams are here to stay. Over 80% of you work on one. Your leadership challenge? Only 22% of respondents in the study noted that they had received ANY training or coaching to improve their ability to be productive on or lead a global team. Make sure you support your virtual teams and leaders to be successful. If you don’t, you are not only perpetuating the problem, but also exposing you and your organization to a higher risk of failure. Get them trained and coach them in order to foster more productive and effective virtual teams.

* RW3 LLC; Trends in Global Virtual Teams 2016