Now Your Team Is Virtual. What’s Next?
What every manager should know about leading virtual teams (includes links to resources)
Early in my career when I worked at one of the Big Five firms, I led a global network of trainers. When assigned the team, my manager didn’t offer any guidance, and I had to learn by doing. I did okay, and the team accomplished a great deal. They worked well together and supported one another. That was a great learning experience on how teams should work.
Since working at Andersen, I’ve led numerous in-person and virtual teams. I’ve also read articles and attended some events that demystified the management practices of virtual teams. I internalized what I’ve learned and developed my own virtual-team standards that I’d like to share.
I found these standards useful for improving team performance and mitigating micromanagement. My hope is that you’ll find them useful.
You might be tempted to figure out what to do as you do it. Don’t. When transitioning to virtual teaming, you need to plan carefully. Start by managing your communications.
Immediately, meet with your virtual team to discuss how you want to engage with each other. Get their input. Discuss how often you want to meet as a team and how often you should meet individually with your team members.
Discussing the frequency with your team isn’t about getting their buy-in but getting their ideas. If you listen carefully to what they want, you’ll make better decisions about how your team should communicate, which should help with their buy-in.
Schedule regular meetings with individuals
Just like face-to-face, schedule regular interval meetings with each team member. I’ll discuss what to do later in this blog.
If you want some immediate ideas, read Bryan Ye’s blog, The Direct Report’s Guide to Meaningful One-on-Ones. Also, Gustavo Razzetti wrote an interesting blog entitled, The Ultimate Guide to Successful Meetings. Dave Bailey wrote a great blog about meeting with individuals: Three Questions to Start Every Meeting.
Email a Post-meeting follow-up
Whether with the team or an individual, email a follow-up to each meeting that includes a thank-you message and summarizes what you agreed to do. This validates their importance and gives them an opportunity to clarify any misunderstandings.
Need help? Read Patrick Ewers’ blog, How to Write a Great Follow-Up Email After a Meeting.
Evaluate and discuss the virtual experience
As you go through this new experience, evaluate how well you and your team are transitioning from face-to-face to virtual. In group and individual meetings, ask your team how well this is working.
Also, invite feedback. Team members may be hesitant to volunteer this, so you need to ask for it. If you are uncomfortable doing this, ask team members what else you can do to improve communications. This focuses the discussion on the future and not your past actions. For more, read about Marshall Goldsmith’s Feedforward concept in this PDF.
Stay connected: Communicate organizational news
While your team is not meeting, spend some time learning what’s going on with the organization and plan to share with your team — either during meetings to discuss or by email. With these communications, plan to discuss implications for your team.
Aaron De Smet, Monica Mcgurk, and Marc Vinson of McKinsey & Company have a powerful article worth reading that might help you communicate organizational news. The article is entitled, Unlocking the potential of frontline managers. In it, you’ll find other insights as well.
Keep inclusion, equity, and diversity in mind
As your team interacts during meetings, take a step back and observe. Does everyone have an equal voice? Do teammates interrupt others? These are critical to observe. I’ve been guilty of interrupting others, but I continue to learn and improve how I interact. Doing so helps strengthen team dynamics, improves engagement, and ultimately improves performance.
I highly recommend two resources:
- Eleanor Beaton’s blog, Women Are Interrupted Twice as Often as Men in Meetings. Here Are 7 Tips to Have Your Voice Heard.
- Debrah Lee Charatan’s blog entitled, Diversity Is Pointless Without Balanced Conversations.
Investigate the psychological safety concept. You might read my blog, Try Strengthening Team Engagement with Psychological Safety.
When I analyzed how managers behaved for one of my clients, I discovered that some managers didn’t distribute work fairly. They gave the most challenging and interesting assignments to their best-skilled performers, but their least-skilled performers either didn’t have enough work or were left with transactional work.
When work assignments are unbalanced, this causes two problems:
- The high performers become frustrated with their workload and resent that others are not carrying their fair share of work.
- The less-skilled performers become disengaged for not having enough work to do or having to perform dull work.
To fix this, assign work fairly. That means coaching less-skilled performers on how to do more complex work. If you don’t know how to do the work, then have them pair with high performers who do. Initially, this puts stress and pressure on the team, but you need to do this to upskill your low and average performers. Once they learn, this relieves workloads in the long haul.
In a future blog, I’ll discuss this in more detail and add a link here.
Manage the work
Early in my career, I applied for a job that had a team of in-person and virtual performers. I interviewed with one virtual teammate who asked about how I managed virtual employees. I forgot the answer I gave, but the high performer made it clear that I didn’t answer it to her satisfaction. She told me she needs a boss who will leave her alone and let her do her work. I didn’t get the job.
This story exemplifies how you need to manage the work based on your team’s capabilities for specific tasks. I use four levels of management:
Level 4: Assign the work and leave them alone
If a performer is highly skilled and accomplished at performing a task, assign the work and don’t bother the performer.
Level 3: Consult as needed
If performers are competent at a task but not that confident, act as a consultant and provide support as needed.
Level 2: Coach
When performers have task experience but need to develop confidence and competence, coach them. They need help. If you aren’t skilled at the task, find someone who is, and don’t let the performer learn by trial and error.
Level 1: Direct
If a task is new to a performer, be directive and model how to accomplish the task. You need to discuss the thinking behind doing the task as well.
More about the four levels
If these four levels seem familiar, then you may be aware of Blanchard’s Situational Learning (or SLII(R)). I loosly base my approach on this model and describe it in more detail in my leadership book. One note about SLII: Blanchard describes it as a leadership style. I don’t think of SLII as a style but a set of behavioral techniques for managing work.
As the work occurs, monitor appropriately (see the previous topic). Ensure that your team understands the expectations, and provide confirmational or corrective feedback when needed.
Offer support. Ensure that the team knows that they can ask for help anytime-either with you or with their teammates.
Thank them for their work. Make this a sincere habit.
Additionally, read Joe Garfinkle’s blog, Improve retention: Raise the visibility of your most overlooked talent. Garfinkle discusses the importance of recognition and confirming that the team is on the right track to meet expectations.
As your team works and matures their virtual interactions, communicate progress to your boss. Verify expectations and that your team is doing the right work with the right priorities. As with your team, ask your boss for feedback. Most importantly, don’t hesitate to ask for help.
While some may find these standards to be common sense, they may not be commonly practiced.
Are these virtual or in-person standards?
Some may wonder what makes these standards unique to virtual teams. I think that they’re applicable to virtual and in-person teams. However, with virtual teams, I think that managers should spend more time reflecting and assessing their application of these standards. Virtual interactions don’t have the same degree of access to the sensory inputs as you would with in-person interactions.
What about people with disabilities?
This leads me to wonder about how people who happen to have disabilities work. For example, what differences do people with visual disabilities have between virtual and in-person interactions? As managers, we need to raise our awareness continuously as part of our life-long learning, and I’m still learning. If you know of some resources that can help managers with this, please share!
Claire Lew has made her Guide to Managing Virtual Teams available for free. To get a copy, you’ll need to provide your email address to receive a link by email. The link goes to a zip file that contains the 61-page PDF.
LinkedIn changed their remote learning path to free! If you complete it, you can get a badge added to your LinkedIn profile.
The Association for Talent Development (ATD, formerly ASTD) published a remote working resource page.
In HBR, Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi wrote How to Keep Your Team Motivated, Remotely (April 09, 2020).
In Inc., Lindsey Pollak and Eileen Coombes share 23 Essential Tips for Working Remotely.
Alicja Grzadkowska discusses Workers’ comp liabilities facing work from home employees in Insurance Business Magazine.
About the author
Gary is a Leadership Author, Researcher, Consultant, and Podcast Guest. His latest book, What the Heck Is Leadership and Why Should I Care?, is available in paperback, eBook, and audiobook. You can learn more about Gary and his other books at https://www.garyadepaul.com.