3 Tips for Virtual Team Leaders

Have you ever led a virtual team? Are you working in or with a virtual team? Then you know that at times, the passion, engagement and patience of virtual team members are being challenged by the circumstances of virtual teams:

  • Team members may have never seen each other face to face
  • Often team members have a different cultural background
  • Sometimes team members are located in different time zones.

However, having led several virtual as well as ‘traditional’ co-located teams, I am a firm believer of the power of virtual teams. Here are three tips on virtual team leadership that worked for me:

Tip #1: Be crystal-clear on objectives

This is probably standard project team lead advice that you may have heard before. There is only one difference. Co-located teams can overcome uncertainties in team objectives via a quick, informal chat: You meet at the coffee corner, ‘John, what did you mean by overcoming the hurdle by next week?’. ‘Ah, what I meant is that we really need to talk to Jody before the end of the week and get her approval’, ‘Ah, great thanks.’ The issue in a virtual team, of course: Neither a coffee machine exists, nor a water cooler. So you run danger that there are big issues, and nobody clarifies them.

Tip #2: Set interaction ground rules and stick to them

When starting off a new team, build team interaction ground rules together and make sure everybody understands and agrees to them. Especially how you want to communicate as a team. Clearly share and spell out each other’s expectations on style and response time, as there are very often personal as well as cultural differences and causes for conflicts and frustrations. One example: Often we receive short emails like this: “Look into this. M.” Some people might think: ‘How rude’; others: ‘how efficient’. There are differences in style, and it is important that everybody recognizes and understands them.

Tip #3: Use video to your advantage

Skype has recently launched a new ad campaign stressing the power of natural communication with voice and video. And this is so true, and so easily available these days. I am still surprised how underutilized video is in modern corporations. My tip: use it as often as you can – for 1-1 sessions. But be careful when it comes to larger sessions of 5+ people. I have seen many presentations where the only thing I saw of the presenter was a tiny box and a presentation that was not to the person’s advantage. It takes a lot of skill to look professional and convincing on video if no audience is in the room. Therefore, for web presentations to larger groups, turn video off and project via voice and visuals (see here for a short speech on this).

Virtual teams and especially team leaders have to continuously build their virtual skills to be effective. What has worked for you? I am interested in hearing your thoughts.

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